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Rural Vote Key For Democrats' Senate Hopes

Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia races could be pivotal.

Gop Strongholds

Social conservatives proving tough to budge.

October 25, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Capturing a Senate majority is within the Democrats' reach, but the party is facing potentially decisive resistance from rural voters in three critical Republican-leaning states, a series of Times/Bloomberg polls has found.

If Democrats can't break through on Nov. 7 to win the Senate races in at least two of those three states -- Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia -- they are unlikely to control the chamber.

The surveys show Democratic candidates leading in hotly contested races for Republican-held seats in Virginia and Ohio. Republicans, however, lead in races for the GOP-held seats in Missouri and Tennessee. In a fifth state polled, New Jersey, the Democratic candidate holds a slim advantage as Republicans press their strongest bid to gain a Democratic seat.

Underscoring the midterm election's volatility, the survey results in all of these contests fall within the margin of error for the polling, which means they are too close to call.

The Democrats need a net gain of six seats to win a Senate majority. Polls in the other key Senate races show Democratic challengers holding consistent -- though in some cases narrow -- leads against GOP incumbents in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Montana.

If Democrats captured those three seats, won Ohio and held New Jersey, Senate control would hinge on the outcomes in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia.

If Democrats win two of these three races, they would have a 51-49 Senate majority. If they win just one, the Senate would be split 50-50 between the parties and Vice President Dick Cheney would provide the tie-breaking vote in the chamber for Republicans.

The latest Times/Bloomberg surveys underscore the trends that are creating opportunities for Democrats -- particularly anxiety about the Iraq war and erosion of support for the GOP among centrists. But the poll findings also highlight the obstacles Democrats face in converting the national current of discontent into gains in conservative-leaning states.

Breaking the GOP's grip on socially conservative voters in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia will be especially challenging. In each of those states, the surveys found that despite extensive doubts about the country's direction, the Republican candidates are amassing strong margins among rural voters and whites who regularly attend church.

The Times/Bloomberg polls found that among likely voters:

In Ohio, the Democratic challenger, Rep. Sherrod Brown, led Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, 47% to 39%.

In New Jersey, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez held a 45%-41% edge over his GOP challenger, Tom Kean Jr.

In Virginia, Democrat Jim Webb led Republican Sen. George Allen, 47% to 44%.

In Missouri, Republican Sen. Jim Talent was ahead of Democrat Claire McCaskill, 48% to 45%.

In Tennessee, Republican Bob Corker -- the former mayor of Chattanooga -- led Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., 49% to 44%, in the race for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Bill Frist.

The polls, supervised by Times Polling Director Susan Pinkus, were conducted Friday through Monday. They have a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points in Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee, five percentage points in Virginia and 5.5 points in New Jersey.

The Times/Bloomberg poll results are generally in line with other recent surveys. In Virginia, however, this is the first major poll to show Webb leading Allen.

The Democratic candidates in the five battleground races surveyed enjoy many of the same advantages. Top among them are consistent strains of dissatisfaction with the country's direction and the war in Iraq.

In each of the states, three-fifths or more of the voters surveyed say they believe the country is on the wrong track. And more voters said they preferred that Democrats rather than Republicans control a majority in Congress after the election.

Among female voters, the Democratic candidate was favored in each of the five races. All of the Democrats except Menendez enjoyed comfortable leads among urban voters.

Ford, Menendez and Brown also had big advantages among suburban voters, while McCaskill and Webb ran about even with their Republican opponents among this key voting bloc. And each of the Democrats -- with the exception of Menendez -- attracted support from three-fifths of those categorizing themselves as moderates.

But the polls also found substantial stability in the socially conservative electoral coalition that allowed President Bush to carry four of the five states surveyed in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, a fact that bodes well for the Republican candidates.

Among white men in Missouri, Talent led by 11 percentage points. In Virginia, Allen was ahead by 22 percentage points among this slice of the electorate; in Tennessee, Corker led by 24 points.

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