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Republicans lead in 2 of the nation's battleground Senate races

WASHINGTON—Republican Senate candidates have fought back to regain an edge in two key races, pivotal battlegrounds that could determine which party controls the Senate, according to a series of new McClatchy-MSNBC polls.

Republicans hold narrow leads in Tennessee and Virginia, two must-win states where the party hopes to build a Southern bulwark against a Democratic tide that's threatening their Senate seats elsewhere across the country.

The new polls show Democrats leading in two states they must hold—New Jersey and Washington—as well as in five states now held by Republicans: Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Yet even if Democrats take all seven of those, they still need to win either Tennessee or Virginia to take control of the Senate. Democrats must gain six seats overall to take a majority.

"Control of the Senate is going to come down to Tennessee and Virginia," said Brad Coker, the pollster for Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. who conducted the surveys for McClatchy-MSNBC in eight states, as well as one in Virginia for several major newspapers there.

Coker noted that Tennessee and Virginia are culturally conservative states in which Republicans have won Senate campaigns for more than a decade. Also, the Republican candidates in each state appeared to find their footing in recent weeks after missteps earlier.

In Virginia, incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen stopped losing ground after he was accused of racial insensitivity and went on the attack against his Democratic opponent, James Webb, in part charging that Webb was insensitive to women in the military.

In Tennessee, Republican candidate Bob Corker fired top campaign staff and went on the attack against his Democratic rival, Rep. Harold Ford.

While many analysts and insiders of both major parties expect the Republicans to lose control of the House of Representatives, the Senate remains a close contest. Control of either house of Congress is crucial to passing legislation, while the Senate has sole power to confirm appointments to the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court.

The polls revealed a slightly shifting landscape in recent weeks, with Democrats consolidating leads in several states but Republicans not only clawing back in Tennessee and Virginia but also narrowing their gap in Montana, all but given up as lost by national Republican leaders. Of the nine key battleground states, Republicans are ahead in two and within the polls' 4 percentage-point margin of error in three more.

Iraq remains the dominant issue in all but one battleground state, despite weeks of news coverage of the page scandal in the House, North Korea's nuclear test and record highs in the stock market. That hurts Republicans, as those voting on Iraq break for Democrats by margins of 2-1 or more.

Terrorism _usually a Republican strength—has receded as a major issue in most battleground states, with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and news of a foiled alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound planes fading into memory.

Even Republican efforts to rekindle fear of terrorism might not help in most of these Senate campaigns:

_Voters who say they're worried about a terrorist attack on the United States gave the Republican Senate candidate a clear edge only in Montana and Tennessee.

_They favored the Democrat over the Republican in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

_They split almost evenly between the Democrat and Republican in Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio and Washington state.

The polls partly affirmed decisions by Republican leaders to build a Southern wall to protect their Senate majority, steering campaign cash into Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia while pulling it out of states such as Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Here are snapshots of the races, first for Republican-held Senate seats:

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MISSOURI

Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill led incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent by 46-43 percent. They were tied 43-43 percent in the same poll three weeks ago.

McCaskill gained in part because Missouri voters focused more on Iraq in recent weeks. They ranked it their top issue; before, health care was their top concern. Those listing Iraq as their top issue supported the Democrat by a ratio of better than 2-1.

McCaskill also continued to lead among voters most concerned about health care, as well as the economy.

Talent led by 80-11 percent among those who ranked terrorism their top issue, but terrorism ranked fifth on Missourians' priority list. And those who said they were very worried about a terrorist attack on the United States preferred McCaskill by 49-35 percent.

Breakout: McCaskill didn't have the support of a majority of women, but she did hold a slight lead among them, 47-41 percent.

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MONTANA

Democrat Jon Tester, the state Senate president, led incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns by 46-43 percent. Tester led three weeks ago by 47-40 percent.

Burns remains vulnerable largely because he was tied to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and has been hit by attacks from Tester on his ethics. More Montana voters, 43 percent, had an unfavorable opinion of Burns than a favorable opinion, 42 percent.

Iraq dominates Montana's political landscape, ranked the top issue nearly 2-1 over terrorism. Iraq voters favored Tester by more than 2-1.

The threat of terrorism remains a strength for Burns. Voters who say terrorism is their top issue favor him by 8-1. Those very worried about a terrorist attack support him by 54-30 percent.

Breakout: Montana has a big gender gap. Women support the soft-spoken Tester by 53-34 percent. Men support the gruff-talking Burns by 52-39 percent.

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OHIO

Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown led incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine by 48-40 percent. Three weeks ago, Brown led by 45-43 percent.

Ohio is the one state in which Iraq isn't the top issue. Voters there rank the economy and jobs as their top concern, reflecting the retrenchment of the U.S. auto industry and its impact on Ohio assembly plants and parts suppliers. It also reflects years of losing manufacturing jobs.

Voters who say the economy is their top issue support Brown by 53-35 percent. Iraq is a close second, and Iraq voters support Brown by better than 3-1.

Breakout: Brown owes his lead in part to the fact that he's holding his base—drawing 84 percent of Democrats—while tapping into DeWine's by winning 18 percent of Republicans. He also benefits from a gender gap: He leads among women 53-36, while he and DeWine split the male vote.

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PENNSYLVANIA

Democrat Bob Casey Jr., the state treasurer, led incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum by 51-39 percent. Casey led by 49-40 percent three weeks ago.

Casey, the son of a popular former governor, may have found the right key to this state as a Democrat who opposes legal abortion. He leads by a 4-1 ratio in heavily Democratic Philadelphia, by 5-3 in the closely divided Philadelphia suburbs and by 5-4 in and around Pittsburgh, and manages 38 percent support in culturally conservative central Pennsylvania.

Casey holds 90 percent of liberals, but also wins 17 percent of conservatives. He leads among women by 52-35 percent and among men by 50-43 percent.

Iraq is the top issue. Terrorism ranks fourth, a top priority for just 11 percent. That's noteworthy given the state's exposure to the 2001 attacks: United Flight 93 crashed there, and Pennsylvania is close to New York and Virginia, the sites of the other attacks that day.

Breakout: Santorum isn't popular. In fact, he was the most unpopular candidate in any battleground state, rated unfavorably by 48 percent and favorably by just 33 percent.

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RHODE ISLAND

Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse led incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee by 48-43 percent, a wider margin than his 42-41 percent lead three weeks ago.

Rhode Island is poison to Republicans this year, with the lowest approval rating for President Bush (22 percent) and Congress (15 percent) of any battleground state. It also is the most tuned in to the Iraq war, with 36 percent calling it their top issue.

A whopping 74 percent of Rhode Island voters want to get troops out of Iraq, and they support Whitehouse.

Even Chafee's much-publicized distance from Bush and the war aren't enough to survive in that environment. He trails among Iraq voters, health-care voters and those worried about a terrorist attack.

Breakout: Chafee's opposition to Bush gets him some points, but not enough. Chafee gets 36 percent of those who disapprove of Bush, 32 percent of liberals and 21 percent of Democrats.

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TENNESSEE

Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, led Democrat Rep. Harold Ford Jr. by 45-43 percent. Three weeks ago, Ford led by 43-42 percent. The campaign is for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Bill Frist, who's retiring.

Tennessee remains relatively hospitable turf for Republicans. The state gives Bush a 46 percent approval rating, among his highest. Just 34 percent think that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., should resign because of the House page sex scandal, the lowest among battleground states.

Iraq is the top issue, and Iraq voters support Ford by a ratio of better than 3-1. Yet 44 percent approve of Bush's handling of Iraq. And those who support the president's policy on Iraq prefer Corker by 84-7 percent.

Race is an undercurrent in Tennessee. Ford would be the first African-American ever elected to the Senate from the South. He leads among African-Americans by 86-4 percent; Corker leads among whites by 53-36 percent.

Breakout: Tennessee is a state in which moral and family values rank high, the state's second highest issue. That could be because Ford emphasizes his religion, and Republicans have lambasted him for once attending a Super Bowl party with Playboy playmates. The values vote is going to Corker by a ratio of 12-1.

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VIRGINIA

Republican Sen. George Allen led Democrat James Webb by 47-43 percent, regaining a lead he held in early September. Three weeks ago they were tied at 43 percent.

Among the states in play this year, Virginia is one of the most hospitable to Republicans. The state's voters give Bush relatively high marks for his handling of the economy, 54 percent, and for fighting terrorism, 57 percent.

Yet Iraq is a top issue, and that's not good for Republicans even in the state that's home to the Pentagon and the Atlantic Fleet. Just 43 percent of Virginia voters approve of Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

That helps explain why Allen, a staunch defender of the war, recently started criticizing it.

Also, Allen trails Webb in the Hampton Roads region, heavily populated with military families and retirees. Webb is a former Navy secretary under President Reagan who opposes the Iraq war.

Breakout: Allen regained his footing as interest declined in stories about how he called an Indian-American a "macaca," a racial slur in some cultures, and how he was accused of using racial slurs while a college student. While 30 percent said they thought the college stories were true, 83 percent said they weren't important to their votes.

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Here are snapshots of the Democrat-held Senate seats:

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NEW JERSEY

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez led Republican Tom Kean Jr., a state senator, by 45-42 percent. He led by the same margin, 44-41 percent, three weeks ago.

The race there is a mudfest, with Menendez facing questions and ethics attacks over a land deal. Voters hold him in low regard, with 34 percent having a favorable opinion of him and the same percentage holding an unfavorable opinion.

Kean, the son of a popular former governor, fares only slightly better, with 35 percent holding a favorable opinion and 29 percent unfavorable.

Iraq beats terrorism as the top issue, noteworthy in a state that lost people in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Iraq voters break for the Democrat by 8-1.

Those who rank terrorism their top issue support Kean by a ratio of 3-1. Yet those who say they're very worried about a terrorist attack split evenly between Kean and Menendez.

Breakout: The state that saw its last governor resign because of an affair with a man gives the most support, 50 percent, to the notion that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., should resign in the wake of the House page scandal.

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WASHINGTON STATE

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell led Republican Mike McGavick by 52-37 percent, increasing her lead from 50-40 percent three weeks before.

Cantwell had the highest favorable rating—48 percent—of any candidate in the battleground states.

Washington state is hostile to Republicans this year, giving some of the lowest approval ratings to Bush (34 percent) and Congress (22 percent).

Iraq is the top issue, followed by the economy and jobs in a distant second place. Terrorism lags behind in seventh place. Iraq voters support Cantwell by a ratio of 8-1.

Breakout: Cantwell benefits from a gender gap in one of the three states that have two female senators. (California and Maine are the others.) She leads among men by 48-38 percent and among women by 57-35 percent.

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BREAKOUT: In all the battleground states, those who identify themselves as moderates greatly prefer Democratic Senate candidates to Republicans. In Ohio, for example, self-proclaimed moderates backed the Democrat over the Republican by 59-27 percent.

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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 Oct. 17-21.

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 land-phone line had the same odds of being called as anyone else. 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 doesn't include other variables that could affect results, including the way questions are worded or the order in which they're asked.

The Mason-Dixon Virginia Poll was conducted for several major state newspapers and made available to McClatchy Newspapers.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20061023 POLL Senate, 20061023 POLL issues

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