WASHINGTON — Republican Rep. Joe Wilson and Democratic challenger Rob Miller could be headed for a repeat finish of their 2008 race as a new poll shows the congressman up by 7 points over the former Marine Corps captain in the nation's richest race.
The 46-39 percent margin for Wilson in a poll commissioned by the Miller campaign roughly mirrors the 54-46 percent outcome when the two men faced off two years ago.
Earlier surveys by Anzalone Liszt Research, a Montgomery, Ala., firm, showed Wilson, of Lexington, leading Miller, from Beaufort, by 15 points in May and by 10 points in September.
The rematch, though, has been transformed by a flood of money to both candidates in the wake of Wilson's "You lie!" shout in September 2009 as President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress.
Wilson's campaign aides said Friday that he'd raised about $500,000 in the third quarter of 2010, bringing his total haul to $4.5 million through Sept. 30, with just over $1 million in cash on hand.
Miller's campaign aides said his quarterly fundraising was $315,000, giving him $2.8 million raised through Sept. 30, with about $500,000 left in his campaign coffers.
The $7.3 million fundraising total for the two men makes their 2nd Congressional District contest the most expensive U.S. House race in the country. It became the best-financed campaign in South Carolina history earlier this year.
The new Miller poll was based on phone interviews last week with 500 likely voters in the district. It has a plus or minus margin of error of 4.4 percent points.
"We've got the momentum, and we're going to win in November," Miller said. "People are tired of Joe Wilson's reckless spending and Washington ways, like sending our jobs overseas and using taxpayer money to fly first class to France and Luxembourg. It's clear that Joe Wilson is part of the problem in Washington."
Wilson, who's the subject of a congressional ethics probe into his use of taxpayer-funded expense money while on foreign trips, blamed his deteriorating poll numbers on Democrats having made him a marked man because of his outburst at Obama.
"We always expected the (House Speaker) Pelosi-Miller smear machine would make this race tighten, given the millions Pelosi and liberal extremist groups like MoveOn.org raised for Pelosi's chosen candidate, Rob Miller," said Dustin Olson, Wilson's campaign manager.
"Even Miller's paid pollster has Joe Wilson winning despite the millions Miller has spent misleading voters on Joe Wilson's military travel, record of fighting congressional pay hikes and record of bringing jobs to South Carolina," Olson said.
In answering the poll's "generic party" question, 46 percent of those surveyed said they'd be more likely to vote for a Republican, while 36 percent preferred a Democrat.
That finding suggests that Miller could be picking up some Republican voters since he trails Wilson by 7 points, 3 points fewer than the generic party spread.
The survey also showed that two minor-party candidates could have an impact on the Wilson-Miller race, especially if it tightens.
Libertarian Party candidate Eddie McCain, a retired Army sergeant, drew 3 percent support from likely voters, up from 1 percent last month.
Constitution Party candidate Marc Beaman stood at 1 percent in the poll, the same level as a month ago.
McCain has been running ads on four radio stations in the district. Beaman said he's purchased a combined $28,000 in TV ads that will start airing Monday on WACH, the Midlands' Fox News affiliate, and on WLTX, the area's CBS station.
Both men describe themselves as conservative, and they are running as candidates from parties in which some disaffected Republicans have sought refuge.
If McCain and Beaman pick up more support, it will likely come at Wilson's expense and could narrow his lead over Miller.
McCain and Beaman are upset that they've been excluded from next week's ETV debate between Wilson and Miller.
"They're a public entity, they take public funds, they're supported by the state legislature," Beaman said. "Excluding me, a legitimate candidate, is un-American. They are, in essence, giving the Republican and Democratic candidates free advertising and an unfair advantage."
Rob Schaller, ETV's communications director, said McCain and Beaman were excluded became they've raised virtually no campaign money and have not registered at least 10 percent support in any poll.