WASHINGTON _ S.C. Sen. Mick Mulvaney leads U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt by a 49-39 percent margin, opening up a 10-point lead in a poll taken two weeks before the Nov. 2 election.
The phone survey of 499 likely voters in the 5th Congressional District on Oct. 16-19 and Oct. 21 was conducted by Penn Schoen Berland, a Washington firm that was President Bill Clinton's main polling firm and has predominantly Democratic clients. The poll had a 4.4 percentage point margin of error.
Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican making his first run for Congress, welcomed the poll results.
"This is consistent with both the crowds and enthusiasm I'm seeing on the campaign trail, including in traditional Spratt strongholds of the district," he said. "But we are taking nothing for granted, and we will finish stronger than we started."
Spratt dismissed the survey's findings.
"The Hill/Penn poll out this morning is a flawed, dated outlier that's entirely inconsistent with our campaign's tracking and turnout models," said Nu Wexler, Spratt's campaign spokesman.
The poll was conducted for The Hill, a widely read political newspaper on Capitol Hill.
Wexler said the campaign's internal polls showed the Spratt-Mulvaney race tied, with daily leads of one candidate or the other rarely exceeding 2 percentage points.
Wexler said blacks were underrepresented in the poll, with 22 percent of those surveyed describing themselves as African-Americans.
Thirty-one percent of the district's registered voters are black, and African-Americans made up one-third of actual voters in the 2008 election, when Barack Obama was chosen the first black president.
Spratt is running ads featuring Obama on radio stations with predominantly black audiences in his district.
Forty-four percent of those surveyed approve of President Obama's performance, while 55 percent disapprove.
As head of a major House committee serving his 28th year in Congress, Spratt is a big target for Republicans. Groups from outside South Carolina, funded mainly by businesses, have spent more than $1 million on TV ads attacking Spratt.
To help counter the anti-Spratt ads, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in recent days purchased $252,007 worth of TV ads promoting the York Democrat, according to disclosures to the Federal Election Commission.
The DCCC ads for Spratt are part of a $21.6 million ad buy in 66 districts across the country as the Democrats try to retain control of the House of Representatives.
The new poll's findings were surprising because the Spratt-Mulvaney race had been rated a tossup by most election analysts.
The poll carried other significant findings beyond the top numbers:
_ One-quarter of the district's likely voters consider themselves independents, and 54 percent of them back Mulvaney, while only 31 percent back Spratt.
_ Nearly twice as many likely voters hold a negative view of Spratt than hold one of Mulvaney, by a 47-24 percent margin.
_ Almost seven in 10 said they'd voted for Spratt at least once in the past, indicating a sharp falloff in support among his previous backers.
_ Three-quarters of those surveyed said they're unlikely to change their minds before Election Day, suggesting that Spratt must persuade most of those who remain undecided to vote for him in a short period of time.
_ An overwhelming majority _ 86 percent _ said they "definitely" will vote next week, while 14 percent said they'll "likely" cast ballots, another sign of intense voter interest in a possible wave election that could restore a Republican House majority.
In a reflection of the anti-incumbent mood roiling the country, 43 percent of likely voters said Spratt's almost 14 House terms is a reason to vote against him, compared with 36 percent who cited his seniority as cause to back him.
While 49 percent of the district voters said they cast ballots for GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 presidential election, only 36 percent identified themselves as Republicans, with 34 percent saying they're Democrats and 25 percent calling themselves independents.
Spratt, who will turn 68 the day before the election, revealed in March that he has Parkinson's disease that causes "an occasional tremor in my right hand, which responds to medication and is mostly a nuisance."
The poll didn't ask likely voters whether Spratt's health and age influenced their decisions on whether to vote for him.
In broader surveys of 10 states, including South Carolina, 46 percent of likely voters said they'll vote for Republican congressional candidates vs. 42 percent for Democrats.
The challenge from Mulvaney, who served four years in the state House before being elected to the S.C. Senate in 2006, is the stiffest Spratt has faced since 1994.
Spratt was one of the few white Southern Democrats to avoid defeat in 1994, when Republicans led by Newt Gingrich gained control of the House for the first time in a half century. Spratt defeated GOP challenger Larry Bigham by a 52-48 percent margin.