WASHINGTON—Republican Senate candidates have bounced back in two largely overlooked states, strengthening their party's chance to retain control of the U.S. Senate in Tuesday's elections, according to an exclusive series of McClatchy Newspapers-MSNBC polls.
Twelve new state-by-state polls show a surprise shift in the political battleground to the north as Republican incumbents clawed their way back in two states frequently written off as lost to them—Montana and Rhode Island.
In Montana, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns has fought back to a 47-47 percent tie with Democrat Jon Tester after trailing in all earlier polls.
In Rhode Island, Sen. Lincoln Chafee led Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse by 46-45 percent. Chafee trailed by 5 points just two weeks earlier.
And in Tennessee, a closely watched Senate battleground considered a toss-up until now, Republican Bob Corker has opened up a 50-38 percent lead over Democrat U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. The campaign is for the Republican-held seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Bill Frist.
All 12 state polls have a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. They were taken between Oct. 31 and Nov. 3.
If Republicans hold those three key states, they are likely to retain power in the Senate, even if they lose other battleground states such as Missouri and Virginia, where the new polls show they've lost the edge narrowly to Democrats.
Most of the 12 states polled by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc.—eight for McClatchy-MSNBC, four for other media clients of Mason-Dixon—remain too close to call.
Thousands of likely voters remain undecided in each state despite $1 billion worth of TV ads and vigorous campaigning, and many may not make up their minds until Tuesday. Some of these Senate races will hinge on which party does the better job of turning out its supporters.
But the results in these three key states underscore that Republicans still have a good chance to hold the Senate. That's despite a political landscape dominated by bad news from Iraq and widespread belief among political analysts that a wave of anti-Republican anger is about to sweep Republicans out of control of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate.
"The Senate is very much up for grabs," said Brad Coker, the pollster for Mason-Dixon. "The big change is that senators Burns and Chafee have come back to life."
The two states are ideological and cultural opposites—rural, conservative Montana and liberal city-state Rhode Island. But they are unified by one thing that could stymie an anti-Republican trend: local issues are threatening to trump national concerns like Iraq that have hurt Republicans elsewhere.
In Montana, one key reason for Burn's comeback is that he's stressed how much federal money he brings home to a large, sparsely populated state that depends on Uncle Sam for help more than most states. In Montana, pork is not a four-letter word.
In Rhode Island, Coker attributes what he calls the "stark turnaround" to a debate last week when Republican Chafee ripped Democrat Whitehouse for changing his position on a local casino debate—after Whitehouse took money from gambling interests. Coker said that painted Whitehouse as a flip-flopper on a hot local issue while playing to Chafee's reputation for integrity.
Coker noted that neither Burns nor Chafee has yet won support of more than 50 percent, a lingering sign of vulnerability for an incumbent. But, he added, "they're at least competitive now."
In Tennessee, Republican Corker had appeared in trouble just weeks ago. But one major trend helped him in the Republican-leaning state: he finally consolidated Republican support in Eastern Tennessee after a bitter primary fight that had left the party base splintered.
Also, a much-discussed Republican ad suggesting that Ford, who is black, dated white women had some impact, the poll showed. Among the third who admitted they were impacted by the ad, they broke for Corker over Ford by a 2-1 margin.
Local issues and local politics are about the only thing helping Senate Republican candidates in the campaign's final days:
_Iraq dominates voters' concerns and drives them to support Democrats by margins of as much as 8-1.
_President Bush is very unpopular, with approval ratings averaging 38 percent in 9 of the states.
_Voters hate Congress. But they aim their anger largely at Republican incumbents, not at Democratic incumbents.
To take the Senate, Democrats need to win a net of six seats on Tuesday.
The polls showed the Democratic Senate candidates leading outright or with a small edge in four contested states that already are Democratic seats—Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and Washington.
If they hold those, they'd still have to win six of eight other seats now held by Republicans to seize Senate control.
Democrats led in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but trailed in Arizona and Tennessee.
That means to capture the Senate, Democrats would have to win all four other states where they are running neck and neck with the Republicans: Missouri, Montana, Rhode Island and Virginia.
Here are snapshots of the state-by-state landscape, first for Senate seats now held by Republicans:
Republican Sen. Jon Kyl led Democrat Jim Pederson, 49-41 percent, with 3 percent supporting another candidate and 7 percent undecided.
Immigration is a major issue in the only border state with a hotly contested Senate race this year, ranking higher than in any other battleground state. One in five Arizona voters called it their top concern, a close second to Iraq.
Those voting on that issue preferred Kyl by 69-18 percent. A major difference: Pederson supports a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants already in the United States; Kyl believes illegal immigrants should return to their home countries before being allowed to return as guest workers.
Kyl led among whites, who made up 78 percent of the poll, by 55-35 percent. Pederson led among Hispanics, who made up 18 percent, by 65 to 27 percent.
Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill led incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent by 46-45 percent, with 2 percent supporting other candidates and 7 percent undecided.
The contest has been dominated in recent days by an intense debate over federal financing for embryonic stem cell research. McCaskill supports federal financed research; Talent opposes federal financing.
Yet health care is only fifth on the list of top issues there; health care voters favor McCaskill by 61-25 percent.
Iraq dominates, and Iraq voters break for McCaskill by 82-15 percent.
The number two issue is moral and family values—perhaps a reflection in part of the stem-cell debate. Those voters support Talent by a margin of 90-3 percent.
Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and Democrat Jon Tester, the state Senate president, were tied at 47 percent each, with 1 percent supporting another candidate and 5 percent undecided. Burns had been trailing through the fall.
Tester has attacked Burns for ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff—and voters preferred Tester on ethics and honesty by a margin of 47-35 percent.
Tester also led on health care issues, farm and energy issues.
But Burns led, 47-45 percent, on questions of the Iraq war and national security. His reminders that he brings home federal money also paid off, as voters preferred him on that issue by a margin of 51-36 percent.
Democrat Rep. Sherrod Brown led incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine by 50-44 percent, with 1 percent supporting another candidate and 5 percent undecided.
Brown had led by 48-40 percent two weeks earlier.
Independents are key, favoring Brown by 51-38 percent. Brown held his base, supported by 92 percent of Democrats, while DeWine held 83 percent of Republicans.
DeWine led among whites, 48-46 percent, while Brown led among blacks, 86-6 percent.
One backdrop helping Democrats: Ohio voters support a state-constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage to $6.85 per hour by 71-24 percent.
Democrat Bob Casey Jr., the state treasurer, led incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum by 52-39 percent, with 2 percent supporting other candidates and 7 percent undecided.
Iraq dominates the contest, with 29 percent calling it their top concern. No other issue comes close. Those who rank Iraq number one support Casey by a margin of 82-11 percent.
Terrorism, still a Republican strength, was a distant 6th on voters' minds.
Casey, the pro-life, culturally conservative son of a popular former governor, leads in heavily Democratic Philadelphia by 81-14 percent, but also leads in the divided Philly suburbs by 53-36 percent, and manages to hold 36 percent of the vote in conservative central Pennsylvania.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee led Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, 46-45 percent, with 9 percent undecided. Two weeks ago, Whitehouse led, 48-43.
Rhode Island may be the most hostile territory in the land for Republicans this year, yet it hasn't turned completely against the independent-minded Chafee, who often opposes Bush, including on Iraq.
Iraq is the top issue in the state, listed first by 32 percent, twice as many as number two issue health care. Fully 60 percent of them support Democrat Whitehouse—but Chafee draws 32 percent, higher than Republicans in most states.
Chafee also is among the most popular incumbents in the battleground states, with 54 percent saying they like him and 21 percent having an unfavorable opinion. Whitehouse, hit by charges that he mishandled a case while attorney general, is less well liked.
Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, led Democrat Rep. Harold Ford Jr. by 50-38 percent, with 3 percent supporting other candidates and 9 percent undecided. Corker took a narrow lead several weeks ago after trailing weeks before.
Race is a big factor in the contest where Ford would be the first African American ever to be popularly elected from a Southern state.
The poll suggests that a Republican ad mentioning that Ford attended a Super Bowl party attended by Playboy playmates and featuring a white woman telling Ford to "call me," hurt Ford. A whopping 81 percent of likely voters saw the ad.
While 67 percent said it would have no effect on their vote, 23 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Corker and 10 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Ford.
Democratic challenger James Webb led incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen, 46-45 percent. It's the first time Webb has ever held an edge in a Mason-Dixon poll.
This campaign is a mudslinging contest. Allen accuses Webb of demeaning women in sex scenes in his best-selling war novels. Democrats accuse Allen of being a racial bigot.
That's taken a toll on Allen, who once held a 16-point lead. African American voters favor Webb by a margin of 87-6 percent. Allen in past elections has managed to win as much as 15 percent of the black vote. Allen leads among whites, 52-39 percent.
Webb led among women, 47-41 percent.
Virginia voters preferred Webb, a Vietnam veteran who opposes the Iraq war, on the issues of Iraq, national security, honesty and ethics, health care, economic issues and moral issues. Allen got the nod on immigration.
One side issue: a proposed state amendment banning gay marriage was favored by a margin of 49-45 percent, with 6 percent undecided, the first time support has dropped below 50 percent.
Here are snapshots of Democrat-held Senate seats:
Democrat U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin led Republican Lt. Gov. Michel Steele, 47-44 percent, with less than 1 percent favoring another candidate and 9 percent undecided.
Bush and Iraq are factors here. Three out of five voters don't like how Bush is doing his job, and two out of three don't like the way he's handling the war.
Cardin has hammered Steele for ties to Bush, and Steele has worked hard to distance himself. Yet anti-Bush voters support Cardin by a margin of 73-15 percent.
Still, Steele, who is African American, has drawn support away from Cardin in the heavily Democratic state. Steele was supported by 22 percent of the Democrats.
There's a racial cross-divide: Steele led among whites by 52-40 percent; Cardin led among blacks by 65-22 percent.
Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow led Republican Mike Bouchard by 53-37 percent, with 3 percent supporting other candidates and 7 percent undecided.
The economy looms over politics in the state where the U.S. auto industry is retrenching and jobs are in jeopardy. It is ranked the top issue by 38 percent of Michigan voters, more than twice as many as list Iraq their top concern.
Those pocketbook voters support Stabenow by a margin of 52-39 percent. Iraq voters also prefer Stabenow, by a margin of 79-11 percent.
Most troubling to Bouchard, the sheriff of Oakland County outside Detroit: Stabenow led him even there, by 51-41 percent.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez led Republican Tom Kean Jr., a state senator, by 48-41 percent, his widest lead yet. He led earlier, 45-42 percent. Another 3 percent support other candidates and 8 percent are undecided.
A key factor there is ethics—or lack of them. Kean constantly reminds voters that Menendez is under federal investigation about a land deal.
It's taken a toll: voters have a low opinion of Menendez. Just 38 percent think well of him while 35 percent have an unfavorable impression.
But it's offset by Iraq, the dominant issue by better than a 2-1 margin over terrorism. Iraq voters support Menendez by a margin of 8 to 1.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell led Republican Mike McGavick by 54-38, opening the widest lead she's held all fall. Another 7 percent were undecided, and 1 percent supported other candidates.
Cantwell's among the most personally popular candidates in the swing states, with 52 percent of likely voters holding a favorable opinion of her. Only 40 percent have a favorable opinion of McGavick, a business executive.
Iraq drives the Washington state vote, ranked the top issue by nearly a third of voters. That's a 2-1 margin over terrorism, a distant second even in a state with major port operations.
Cantwell holds the Democrat base, with 90 percent from liberals, and also 64 percent of moderates and 19 percent of conservatives.
She also leads among women by 59-33 percent, and among men 48-43 percent.
In governor's races:
_In Arizona, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano led Republican Len Munsil by 61-33 percent, with 5 percent undecided.
_In Maryland, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Democrat Martin O'Malley were tied at 45 percent each;
_In Michigan. Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm led Republican Dick DeVos by 52-38 percent;
_In Ohio, Democrat Ted Strickland led Republican Ken Blackwell, 56-37 percent;
_In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell led Republican Lynn Swann, 56-38 percent;
_In Rhode Island, Republican Gov. Don Carcieri led Democrat Charlie Fogarty, 50-42 percent.
_In Tennessee, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen led Republican Jim Bryson, 61-26 percent.
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 likely voters in each state was conducted by telephone from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3.
Those interviewed were selected by a random variation of telephone numbers from a cross section of telephone exchanges. That means anyone in the state with a phone line had the same odds of being called as anyone else, except for people who use cell phones only. Cell phone numbers are not in the exchanges.
The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points. That means that 95 percent of the time, the correct numbers could be up to 4 percentage points above our poll's percentage point findings, or up to 4 percentage points below them. The other 5 percent of the time, the correct numbers could vary even 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.
The Mason-Dixon poll was conducted in Montana for Lee Newspapers; in Ohio for the Plain Dealer, in Tennessee for the Chattanooga Free Press and Memphis Commercial Appeal and in Virginia for several major newspapers.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): ELN VOTERS, POLL SENATE
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