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The Likud is continuing to plummet in the polls, capturing a mere nine seats in the latest Haaretz-Dialog survey, while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima party continues to gain strength.

The poll, conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday among 500 voters, found that if elections were held now, Kadima would win 37 seats, compared to nine for the Likud. Some 65 percent of those who voted Likud in 2003 said that they planned to vote Kadima this time, while only 16 percent said that they definitely plan to stick with the Likud.

For the Likud, this is close to an all-time low: Only in the second Knesset, in the 1950s, did its predecessor, Herut, fare worse. In that Knesset, Herut had eight seats.

The poll results are causing panic in the Likud. Senior Likud officials fear a mass defection of party activists to Kadima if the trend does not reverse soon - a development that would destroy the party's organizational infrastructure.

However, unlike Kadima and Labor, Likud has not yet chosen its prime ministerial candidate - a fact that might be contributing to its poor poll numbers. Moreover, the general situation is still highly unstable, with people switching between parties continuously, and is likely to remain so for the next several weeks.

The poll, conducted under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs, also found that Labor is currently holding firm at 26 seats, while Shinui continues to shrink, and would now win only five seats.

Half of Shinui's voters have switched to Kadima. Shas is also holding steady: It won 10 seats in this week's poll, compared to 11 in the current Knesset; the seat it lost went to Labor.

As the campaign proceeds, the Likud will try to paint Kadima as a leftist party, hoping thereby to regain some of the voters it has lost to Sharon. Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the party's six leadership candidates, set the tone last night when he responded to the statement by Sharon that he would not carry out another unilateral withdrawal. "Sharon said such things before, but he still withdrew, and he'll withdraw again," Netanyahu said.

The poll also asked people to rank five prime ministerial candidates - Sharon, Amir Peretz of Labor, and Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom and Shaul Mofaz of Likud - on a scale of one to five, with one representing the far right and five the far left. Most respondents placed Sharon in the center (3.03), Netanyahu on the right (2.12), Peretz on the left (3.8) and Shalom and Mofaz between Netanyahu and Sharon. Moreover, 40 percent of respondents placed themselves in the center - exactly where they placed Sharon, which is the secret of his success. In contrast, only 8 percent of respondents positioned themselves where they positioned Netanyahu.

Respondents were also asked which Likud leadership candidate, Netanyahu, Shalom or Mofaz, would bring the party the most seats. A plurality (40 percent) chose Netanyahu, while only 18 percent chose Shalom. Among Likud voters, however, only 34 percent said Netanyahu, while 37 percent said Mofaz.

Asked for their preferred candidate for defense minister, 41.5 percent of respondents chose the incumbent, Mofaz. Other candidates - Ami Ayalon, Ehud Barak, Avi Dichter and Matan Vilnai - trailed far behind.

For finance minister, the race was much closer: Some 28 percent chose Amir Peretz, followed by Netanyahu, Avishay Braverman and Ehud Olmert. Interestingly, 23.5 percent of Likud voters named Peretz as their preferred candidate for the treasury.

For foreign minister, Shimon Peres was the favorite, winning 44 percent of the vote, compared to 26 percent for the incumbent, Shalom. Peres even outpolled Shalom among Likud voters, 40 percent to 30 percent.