By Jane Barrett

MADRID
THE popularity of Spain's ruling Socialists slid four weeks before general elections, according to the latest polls, after the conservative opposition jumped on immigration as its new policy battle ground.

A snap poll taken by Metroscopia showed the Socialists (PSOE) lost 0.3 percentage points since the last poll about 10 days ago while the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) gained 0.2 points.

While the change is small, it is the first time the PP has narrowed the difference in polls running up to the March 9 vote and shows how tight the race is likely to be.

The PSOE now stands at 41.7 percent with the PP at 38.8. The poll was taken after the PP said it would introduce new controls on immigration, ask new arrivals to sign a contract promising to integrate and respect Spanish customs and limit the use of the Islamic veil. Metroscopia's poll showed 56 percent of those questioned approved of the policy.

It is the first time immigration has figured as a major campaign policy in Spain, where foreigners have generally integrated well, helped by the fact that many arrive from Latin America and already speak the language.

However, many Spaniards are worried by a rise in immigration from Africa and Muslim countries, and with economic growth suddenly slowing, analysts say the PP is appealing to low-income Spaniards worried about losing their jobs.

Half of the people polled by Metroscopia said the economic situation was bad or very bad while the economy and unemployment rated as the two biggest concerns in another poll by Instituto DYM.

DYM's poll, taken from Jan. 28-Feb. 1 before the PP launched its immigration plans, showed the conservatives gaining 0.6 points to 39.2 percent while the PSOE stayed at 42.4.

Last week, data showed the services sector shrinking to an all time low, jobless figures jumping and confidence falling.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has said the economy, which has grown much faster than most other European countries in the past years, is still in good shape and will be boosted again by a glut of public works coming up.

The most positive Sunday reading for Zapatero, who this weekend won the backing of artists like film director Pedro Almodovar and singer Ana Belen, was in the Sigma Dos survey which showed both parties losing ground to smaller parties.

Sigma Dos gave the PSOE 41.8 percent and the PP 39.2.