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The rising conservative tide within the GOP

With polls proliferating in races across the country, today's "Morning Fix" highlights five to pay attention to -- and explains why.

1. New Gallup numbers show that more than seven in ten Republicans describe themselves as either "conservative" or "very conservative", numbers that exceed past data points and affirm the growing power of the ideological right within the party.

The largest bloc of Republicans -- 53 percent -- call themselves "conservatives" while another 18 percent describe their ideology as "very conservative". Roughly three in ten GOPers (29 percent) say they are either "moderate" or "liberal'.

Those identifying themselves as either conservative or very conservative have been on the rise over the past decade in Gallup polling. In 2000, 62 percent of Republicans called themselves conservatives and in 2006 it was 67 percent. But, that number has been 70 percent or higher in each years since 2008 -- suggesting that Democratic-control of Congress and the White House has pushed more Republicans into the conservative camp.

The Gallup numbers, drawn from more than 262,000 interviews between Jan. 2 and Sept. 23, provide some explanation for the remarkable successes of tea party candidates in Republican Senate primaries across the country.

To wit: Not only are the ranks of self-identifying conservatives growing but those people who tend to describe themselves as either "conservative" or "very conservative" tend to be older (85 75 percent over the age of the age of 55) -- the most reliable voting bloc in any election but particularly midterm elections. Just 16 percent of Republicans 18 to 34 years old call themselves "very conservative."

"In that voter turnout is generally much greater among middle-aged and older Americans than among younger adults, it is likely that conservative (and religious) Republicans have had an even greater voice in Republican Party primaries this year than their numbers suggest," concludes Gallup's Lydia Saad in a memo analyzing the results.

The implications of the growth of conservatives within the GOP has already been felt in 2010 with people like Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell winning primary races against politicians perceived as more moderate.

The lesson for any candidate looking seriously at a run for the presidency in 2012? Get to the ideological right -- and fast.

2. A new Bluegrass Poll in Kentucky shows state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) within striking distance of ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R) in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R).

The poll, which was conducted by Survey USA, shows Paul at 49 percent to 47 percent for Conway, well within the survey's four percentage point margin of error. Four percent of respondents were undecided.

The survey showed a significant gender gap exists in the race: Paul is winning 59 percent of men, while Conway leads among women with 55 percent. Independents favor Paul over Conway 50 percent to 45 percent, with only five percent undecided.

The results are a marked shift from other recent surveys in which Paul has led by as much as double-digits; the previous Bluegrass Poll, conducted by Survey USA in early September, showed Paul leading Conway 55 percent to 40 percent.

Democrats argue that the poll is evidence that Paul's remarks downplaying the gravity of the drug abuse problem in eastern Kentucky have hurt him.

The poll is something of a surprise given that conservative outside groups led by American Crossroads have been spending heavily on ads against Conway. The race was also the first of the general election in which the National Republican Senatorial Committee began airing ads -- a sign, perhaps, that they were/are concerned about it. National Republicans insist, however, that Paul has remained steadily ahead in their internal polling.

3. A new poll from the University of Cincinnati shows a close race for governor in Ohio even as former Rep. Rob Portman (R) appears to have put away the state's open seat Senate contest.

The poll, conducted for several Ohio newspapers, shows Portman leading Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) 55 percent to 40 percent. Former Rep. John Kasich (R), meanwhile, leads Gov. Ted Strickland (D) by just four points - 49 percent to 45 percent.

The poll is an improvement over what Strickland had been seeing in other recent polls. He trailed by between six and 17 points in the last three polls released this month. His campaign released data last week showing the incumbent down by three points.

Both national parties are spending heavily on the Ohio governor's race -- one of the crown jewels of this election cycle due to its centrality to the presidential contest in 2012 not to mention that the state will lose seats in redistricting next year and whichever party controls the governor's mansion will be in the driver's seat in the decennial redistricting process.

While the governor's race appears to be tightening, the opposite trend line is at work in the Senate race. Portman is racking up a huge margin in his base - southwest Ohio - where he leads Fisher 66 percent to 28 percent. The two men are basically running even in Fisher's base in the northeastern part of the state. Portman has drastically outraised and outspent Fisher, which accounts for his widening lead.

4. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's (I) Senate bid appears to be in free-fall, according to a new Mason-Dixon survey released over the weekend.

The poll shows Crist trailing former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) 40 percent to 28 percent among likely voters in the race to succeed appointed Sen. George LeMieux (R). Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), who is running against Crist and Rubio in the three-way race, takes 23 percent.

Crist, who left the Republican party in April once it became clear he could not win a Republican primary against Rubio, has watched his support drop 10 points since May, when he led the field with 38 percent. Rubio, meanwhile, has seen his support grow by eight points, and Meek's share of the vote has ticked up four percentage points since May.

Especially worrisome for Crist is the fact that his support among independents and Democrats has plummeted over the past month. His lead among independents dropped from 44 percent in August to 27 percent in the current poll; Rubio now leads with 38 percent among independents, while Meek takes 20 percent.

Democrats, meanwhile, have swung toward Meek; the Congressman now takes 44 percent to Crist's 37 percent, nearly the inverse of the results last month.

Perhaps with an eye toward winning back those Democrats, Crist's camp announced over the weekend that former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who resigned earlier this year, had endorsed Crist over Meek.

"There is a special time in which elected officials ... have to put country before party, and this is one of those times," Wexler said Sunday at an event with Crist.

5. More than two-thirds of voters in 10 key states say government spending is personally affecting their lives, according to a new bipartisan poll set to be released Monday.

In an extensive survey conducted for a new group called Public Notice, voters hint that the amount of money being spent in Washington has a big impact on their lives and, potentially, their vote. (Public Notice is a non-profit but is run by former Bush Administration spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel.

While 68 percent said government spending impacted them, 40 percent said it is "very much" a factor in their personal finances.

The poll was conducted by the Democratic firm Hart Research and the Republican firm Tarrance Group for a new watchdog group called Public Notice. It surveyed 5,501 voters in 10 states: California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington.

When it comes to issues of importance to them, voters rank government spending behind only creating jobs and growing the economy. It ranked ahead of cutting taxes, reducing health care costs and reforming Medicare and Social Security.

The polling also found that the government spending is a pretty constant concern across the economic spectrum, with poor voters and wealthy ones placing similar emphasis on it.

Republicans have hammered Democrats in races across the country on the increased spending by the government since President Barack Obama took over and even Democratic strategists acknowledge it is a potentially potent message.

With Felicia Sonmez and Aaron Blake

By Chris Cillizza  | September 27, 2010; 7:39 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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