The most recent FOX News poll shows that voters see Democrats as better at handling an array of key issues and gaining public trust on some areas traditionally considered Republican strengths. In addition, more voters think it would be better for the country if Democrats win control of Congress in this year’s election.

The poll finds that by a margin of 42 percent to 34 percent Americans think it would be better if Democrats gain control of Congress this year. Today’s 8-percentage point edge is down from an 11-point edge last month (10-11 Jan 2006).

As would be expected, most Democrats (81 percent) and Republicans (79 percent) want their respective parties to win control. Among independents: 32 percent back the Democrats and 18 percent the Republicans, with a 39 percent plurality saying “neither.”

Opinion Dynamics Corporation conducted the national telephone poll of 900 registered voters for FOX News on February 7-8.

“When we compare these results with those for the presidential races in the same poll, we see Americans seem to be expressing a desire for divided government,” comments Opinion Dynamics CEO John Gorman. “’Checks and balances’ has been a catch phrase in the news in recent weeks and, consciously or unconsciously, the public seems to be leaning toward a Democratic congress to put the breaks on some of the Bush administration policies. If Democrats can nationalize this theme, they have excellent chances in 2006.”

The new poll finds that Democrats have increased their support on several issues, though only claiming the backing of a majority on the single issue of health care. Voters favor Democrats by 23 points as the party that would do a better job on health care, by 20 points on Social Security and 17 points on education — results that may not be all that surprising as these are typically considered “Democrat” issues.

However, Democrats are now seen as the party that would do a better job on taxes (+ 5 points), and voters are about equally likely to pick Democrats on handling Iraq — issues that are traditionally thought of as being in the Republican column. Today, Republicans hold a 2-percentage point advantage on Iraq, down from a 14-point advantage two years ago and 32 points in 2003.

Republicans are still favored on family values (+10 percentage points), and handling terrorism (+14 points) — though here again Democrats have narrowed the gap. Two years ago Republicans held a 23-point edge on terrorism, and in 2003 a 34-point edge.

Bush’s Post-SOTU Job Rating

In the poll’s first read of President Bush’s job rating since his State of the Union address, his approval improved slightly and now stands at 44 percent, up from 41 percent at the end of January. His current approval rating is the highest he’s received since last September (45 percent approved).

In part, the president’s State of the Union speech focused on energy issues and the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Most Americans agree with Bush’s comment that the country is “addicted to oil” (82 percent), and half think 15 years down the road that cars in the United States will be fueled by something other than gasoline (43 percent think still primarily gas).

Opinion on nuclear power is mixed: 45 percent think the U.S. should explore building more nuclear power plants and 43 percent disagree.

Bush also defended the NSA wiretapping program in his speech, saying it had helped prevent terrorist attacks. Today a 54 percent majority of Americans think the president should have the power to authorize monitoring of electronic communications, down from 58 percent last month (10-11 Jan 2005).

• PDF: Click here for full poll results.