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California Senate race a dead heat in GOP poll

1. For months, Senate Republicans have insisted that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) can be beaten. Now, they have a poll that shows the race as a dead heat.

Boxer and former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina (R) are knotted at 44 percent in a Tarrance Group poll conducted for the National Republican Senatorial Committee by Dave Sackett between Oct. 17 and 19.

Among independents and those voters who decline to state a party preference -- a major target for both candidates --- Fiorina leads 47 percent to 34 percent. "[Fiorina] needs to improve upon this and get her ballot strength among ticket-splitters up into the mid 50's," writes Sackett in the polling memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Fix.

The NRSC poll is slightly more optimistic for Fiorina than a Public Policy Institute of California survey released Wednesday that shows Boxer leading 43 percent to 38 percent. The PPIC survey also shows the race for independents tighter; Fiorina takes 37 percent, Boxer takes 36 percent and 18 percent are undecided.

A look at the Real Clear Politics polling average in the race, however, suggests that California is a genuine tossup as Boxer holds a narrow one-point edge.

Republicans, buoyed by their new numbers, insist that despite the state's clear Democratic lean -- the last Republican to win a Senate race in the Golden State was Pete Wilson back in 1988 -- they are in the game thanks to Boxer's lingering unpopularity and a national breeze blowing in their direction.

One Democratic strategist who has worked in California politics expressed a level of pessimism about the race. "I gotta think that even in CA, a liberal career politician is a tough place to be in a change year," said the source who was granted anonymity to give a candid assessment of the race.

Publicly, Democrats express considerable confidence, noting that while the race has tightened somewhat -- thanks to considerable spending by Fiorina -- Boxer enters the final days of the campaign with a three-to-one cash-on-hand edge. Barring Fiorina writing a huge check, they argue, it will be impossible to match Boxer's spending over the final 12 days.

California -- due to its sheer size -- always draws the eyes of the nation to it. Political junkies would do well to keep their gaze glued to the state's Senate race over the final 12 days of the 2010 campaign.

2. Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak (D) and former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) sparred Wednesday night in their first televised debate of the Senate race with each candidate seeking to cast the other as more extreme and out-of-touch with the electorate.

Sestak, who defeated incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary earlier this year due in part to a campaign ad that effectively tied Specter to former President George W. Bush and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), used a similar strategy against Toomey Wednesday night, repeatedly mentioning Toomey's endorsement by Palin and charging that his GOP rival would act in lockstep with her and other Republican candidates such as Delaware Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell.

"Palin, Toomey, O'Donnell, they all would like to overturn Roe vs. Wade," Sestak said at one point during a heated exchange with Toomey over social issues. Sestak added that "those views with O'Donnell and others are too extreme for mainstream Pennsylvanians."

Sestak also hammered Toomey on his tenure on Wall Street and his time spent working in Hong Kong. On the latter, Sestak echoed an ad run by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee earlier this month, hitting Toomey for "working in China for a Chinese billionaire."

Toomey, meanwhile, slammed Sestak as the extreme and out-of-touch candidate, charging that he "voted for all the bailouts, every single one" and is on the far left when it comes to social issues. "He is in that fringe of members, very liberal, who believe in taxpayer-funded abortion on demand," Toomey said of Sestak, adding later that "there is no end to bailouts with Joe."

In one interesting comment, Toomey sought to make light of his years on Wall Street after Sestak repeatedly dinged him on the issue. "If you've seen any of Sestak's ads, you know I worked on Wall Street," Toomey said.

In the end, both candidates put in solid, aggressive performances in the debate. There was no obvious slip-up for either, virtually ensuring a tight race until the end.

3. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has recorded a radio ad and a robocall for Kentucky GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul, in which the former presidential hopeful says Democrat Jack Conway should "repent" for attacking Paul's religion.

Huckabee's involvement comes amid an ongoing controversy in which Conway's campaign ran an ad questioning Paul's devotion to the Christian faith, citing a few of his exploits in college.

"An apology for such a vile attack? Well, it would be meaningless from Jack Conway unless he truly repented from such a classless attack," Huckabee says in the ad. "The people of Kentucky aren't as gullible as Jack Conway must take them for."

Huckabee becomes the latest character witness for Paul, who denounced Conway at a debate Sunday, has run a response ad and, on Wednesday, brought out his wife, Kelley, who is a deacon in a Presbyterian church the couple attend.

"As the granddaughter of a Baptist minister, faith has always been a part of my life, and I'd never have fallen in love with or married a man who didn't share my values," Kelley Paul said.

Conway continued with the attack Wednesday, dispatching state Auditor Crit Luallen (D), a chairwoman for Conway's campaign, to ask Paul to address the issues raised by the ad.

"The question is not whether the ad went too far. The question is whether Rand Paul went too far -- and whether he continues to go too far for Kentucky families," Luallen said. "When his actions were as extreme as those cited in the ad, Paul owes an explanation to the voters."

A Democratic poll released earlier this week showed Conway at 49 percent and Paul at 47, but an independent Mason-Dixon poll released Wednesday showed Paul leading by five.

4. A new CNN/Time poll shows a dead heat between Republican nominee Joe Miller and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in the Alaska Senate race.

The poll shows both candidates at 37 percent, and it comes on the heels of the National Republican Senatorial Committee's first independent expenditure ad in the race -- a commercial that aims to put the race in a national framework.

The most notable aspect of the poll may be how far behind Democrat Scott McAdams is. While other polls have shown him trailing Miller by single digits, this poll shows him 14 points back, at just 23 percent of the vote. McAdams's campaign hasn't received financial support from the national party yet, but it did announce Wednesday that it had raised a total of $1 million.

There is one caveat here, though. It's difficult for pollsters to simulate a write-in candidate in a poll. While other pollsters simply don't mention the write-in candidates' names (because they won't be on the ballot), the CNN/Time poll asked voters directly if they would write in Murkowski's name.

Voters at the polls, of course, won't hear or read Murkowski's name when they are in the voting booth. And, that could mean that the CNN poll has the senator, who lost an Aug. 24 primary to Miller, artificially high in the ballot test.

Other recent polling has shown Murkowski running a few points behind Miller.

In other polls released by CNN and Time on Wednesday, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) is at 48 percent and former Rep. John Kasich (R) 47 percent, while Republicans maintain double-digit leads in the Senate races in Ohio, Florida and Arkansas.

5. Both sides in the Connecticut Senate race are going for the jugular, with Democrats hammering former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon (R) over her former company's involvement with her campaign, while McMahon's side is seeking to tie state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) to a failed mortgage company.

The new McMahon ad is a minute-long spot that accuses Blumenthal of reaching a settlement with Countrywide Financial, the mortgage company accused of offering sweetheart deals to politicians.

"Blumenthal protected Countrywide; said the deal was 'in the best interest of investors,' that it wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime. But it did," the ad's narrator says. "Even worse, turns out Blumenthal is an investor in the mortgage giant. Billions in ransacked pensions. Billions in taxpayer bailouts."

Just in case the comparison to retiring Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D), who himself struggled under his ties to Countrywide, wasn't clear, the ad finishes with this line: "Dick Blumenthal. He took care of Countrywide and took care of himself -- just like Chris Dodd." The ad marks the first time that McMahon has invoked Dodd in a TV ad against Blumenthal.

A Blumenthal spokesperson said that the ad is "completely false and has already been independently discredited. This is just one more attempt by her $50 million attack machine to try and tear down Dick Blumenthal."

Meanwhile, Connecticut Democrats have asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate WWE's role in the campaign, accusing McMahon of "coordinating with and using the corporate resources of her family's company" in the race.

WWE is planning two Connecticut events, including one in Democratic-leaning Hartford on Election Day that state Democrats say is geared toward keeping Blumenthal supporters away from the polls.

McMahon's camp has pushed back, saying that the complaint is "utterly baseless" and noting that the candidate will not appear at the events.

The charges and counter-charges come as new FEC filings show that McMahon has spent more than $41.5 million of her own money on her campaign to date, including $20 million the candidate loaned her campaign between late July and the end of September.

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | October 21, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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