WASHINGTON—Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia has lost his lead in his bid for re-election and is now tied with Democratic challenger James Webb, a new poll for McClatchy Newspapers and MSNBC showed Friday.
The poll found that the two men each have the support of 43 percent of registered voters, with a third-party candidate supported by 2 percent and the other 12 percent undecided.
The tie underscored how quickly prospects have changed for Allen, once thought to be cruising toward a comfortable re-election that he'd use as a springboard to a bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
The race's importance, however, extends far beyond Allen's own political prospects. It's one of a half-dozen Republican seats that are considered vulnerable to Democratic takeovers; Democrats need to gain six seats to take control of the Senate.
As late as July, Allen looked safe. He led Webb by 16 points, 48-to-32 percent, in a survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., which also conducted the McClatchy-MSNBC poll. Allen's lead had shrunk to 4 points, 46-to-42 percent, earlier this month, according to another Mason-Dixon survey.
A key reason for the race tightening has been enormous publicity over Allen's stumbling responses to questions about his character, surprising missteps for a polished campaigner up against an often awkward challenger.
Beyond the latest flaps, however, Allen grew more vulnerable when the Democrats nominated Webb, a candidate well suited to a right-of-center state that's home to the Atlantic fleet, as well as major Air Force and Army bases. Web, a Naval Academy graduate, is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and Navy Secretary under Ronald Reagan whose campaign slogan is "born fighting."
Iraq was the number one issue for 23 percent of Virginia voters, followed by terrorism for 19 percent and the economy and jobs for 16 percent.
Webb opposes Bush's policies in Iraq, while Allen defends them.
Virginia voters were divided over what do to about Iraq: 26 percent want to send more troops; 19 percent want to keep the same number; 21 percent want to withdraw some; and 20 percent want to withdraw all U.S. troops. Some 15 percent said they weren't sure what to do.
Also, Allen is closely allied with President Bush, who's lost support in Virginia as he has elsewhere. The poll found that 57 percent of Virginia voters disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job, and 62 percent disapprove of his policies in Iraq. Virginia voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Some 57 percent of Virginians said they think that the nation is on the "wrong track," while only 29 percent said it's going in the "right direction."
Virginians also expressed some desire for dividing government power in Washington between the two parties. The poll found 42 percent of Virginia voters saying they preferred divided government, 36 percent saying they preferred one party to be in charge, and 23 percent not sure.
Questions about Allen's character first arose in August, when he was caught on videotape at a rally referring to a dark-skinned Indian-American in the crowd as a "macaca" and sarcastically welcoming the native-born Virginian to Virginia.
"Macaca" is considered a racial slur in North Africa, where Allen's mother was from. He said that he didn't know the word and had simply made it up, and he subsequently apologized to the young man, who was a campaign worker for Webb monitoring Allen's rally.
In subsequent weeks, Allen reacted angrily when he was asked in a debate whether his mother was Jewish, calling that an "aspersion." Days later, he acknowledged his mother's Jewish ancestry, saying he'd learned of it only in August, when she told him after a Jewish magazine raised the issue.
In the past week, several people, including former college football teammates, accused Allen of using a racial slur for African-Americans in the 1970s, a charge he denies. Previously he'd been criticized for flaunting a Confederate flag as a young man.
It's all taken a toll with voters such as Diane Canary, 45, a homemaker from Roanoke, who said she supports Webb. "We're concerned with recent things that have been said about Allen and with the racist remarks."
In the wake of the Allen flap, Webb also faced accusations that he used a racial slur. He said it might have passed his lips as a youth, but never as a slur directed at anyone. Webb has been criticized for using derogatory language about women in the military, especially in a 1979 Washingtonian magazine article titled "Women Can't Fight."
Webb has had his own missteps on other fronts. He aired an ad featuring praise from the late President Reagan, which drew a rebuke from former First Lady Nancy Reagan.
"That sent a bad message to me," said William Kilpatrick, 64, a retiree from Bluemont who supports Allen. "For him not to honor her request, I didn't think it was that out of line."
HOW WE POLL
The McClatchy-MSNBC Poll is a snapshot of voter opinion at the time it was conducted. It is not a prediction of how people will vote on Election Day.
The poll of 625 registered voters was conducted by telephone from Sept. 23 through Sept. 27. Those interviewed were selected by a random variation of telephone numbers from a cross section of telephone exchanges. That means anyone in the state had the same odds of being called as anyone else. Cell phones were not called.
The margin of error was plus or minus four percentage points. That means that 95 percent of the time, the accurate number could be somewhere between 4 percentage points above our poll number and four percentage points below it. The other 5 percent of the time, the number could be off by more.
The sampling margin of error does not include other variables that could affect results, including the way questions are worded or the order in which they are asked.
FOR MORE ON THE CAMPAIGNS:
(McClatchy correspondent Brady Averill contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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