Second in a series of occasional articles.

Four years ago, during the last midterm election, Democrats had a simple political strategy for dealing with Iraq: duck.

But not now.

New Mexico Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, a Democrat and critic of the war, says the issue is crucial to the outcome in her congressional contest, one of a relative few across the country that will probably determine control of the House in November. "I certainly intend to keep talking about it," Madrid says.

Her opponent, four-term Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson, remains firm in her support for President Bush and his conduct of the war. She echoes his bottom line: "As the Iraqis stand up, we can stand down."

The debate over Iraq, here in Albuquerque and in other competitive congressional races across the country, shows how much the political dynamic around the war has shifted -- and how heavily the issue weighs in the minds of voters.

In more than two dozen random interviews across New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, an overwhelming majority said they believed the country was headed in the wrong direction, a finding consistent with repeated national surveys.

And virtually all of those who expressed discontent volunteered the same reason: the war in Iraq.

"It's a disaster," said Democrat Richard Williams, 75, a retired electrical engineering professor at the University of New Mexico, who wore a T-shirt covered with mathematical formulas. "We were lied to to go into it, and I don't know how we're going to extract ourselves."

David Houliston, a 45-year-old Republican attorney, agreed. "There's just too much emphasis on the war," he said during a stop at a Borders bookstore in the city's vibrant Uptown area. "We're not able to respond to national disasters such as Katrina on time. We're overextended."

Brad Sims, a 49-year-old engineer and Republican who twice voted for Bush, said he initially supported the war as "a liberation of the folks from a ruthless dictator."

But "they aren't stepping up to the plate for the things that they need to do," Sims said, pausing on his way into a showing of the new "Mission: Impossible" movie. "And we can't be there forever.... How do you win something like that if it's without end?"

Back in 2002, with Bush soaring in the polls, Democrats were eager to take Iraq off the table. So the party's congressional leaders backed an October resolution giving Bush authority to wage war, hoping to change the subject to the economy or other issues they hoped might play better in the midterm election.

It didn't work. Republicans made national security the centerpiece of the campaign despite the bipartisan congressional vote, and gained seats in the House and Senate, a midterm rarity for the party in the White House.

Now, with Bush's approval ratings at an all-time low and with a majority of Americans opposing the war, Democrats hope to make this November a referendum on Bush, and the war in Iraq an albatross for every Republican on the ballot.

The war "is like a fog that just envelops the entire political atmosphere," said Amy Walter, who tracks congressional races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, a handicapper's guide to elections nationwide. "It's one of those issues that leaves a lingering bad taste."

That said, Walter continued, Democrats have to be careful they don't play into old stereotypes and remind voters why they usually prefer Republicans when it comes to defense and national security matters.

The promise and political perils of the war issue are amply illustrated in this high-desert congressional district, a perennial host to hard-fought campaigns and a top target on both parties' November list.

Although 45% of its voters are registered Democrat compared with 35% Republican, the GOP has held the seat throughout its 40-year history. No incumbent has ever lost, but Madrid looks to be Wilson's toughest opponent since she first won election in 1998.