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Minnesota Senate: Not So Close After All?

A new independent poll in Minnesota's open Senate race shows Democrat Amy Klobuchar with a wide lead over GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy, turning on its head the conventional wisdom that this seat represents Republicans' best takeover chance this fall.

The Star Tribune survey of 813 adults showed Klobuchar at 50 percent and Kennedy at 31 percent. Klobuchar held wide leads among a number of key demographic groups. The gender gap was clearly apparent, as she held a 54 percent to 25 percent bulge among women but also led among men -- albeit more narrowly -- 44 percent to 40 percent. Among independent voters, Klobuchar held a 17-point lead, and self-described moderates chose Klobuchar by a 52 percent to 28 percent margin over Kennedy.

Klobuchar was lesser known but better regarded than Kennedy, according to the Star Tribune poll. Seventy-two percent of the sample recognized her name, and among that group 46 percent felt favorably toward her while just 12 percent felt unfavorably. Kennedy was known by 84 percent of those tested with 37 percent viewing him in a favorable light compared with 27 percent who saw him unfavorably.

Not surprisingly, Kennedy's campaign immediately sought to discredit the poll. "We hope the Democrats believe this stuff," said Kennedy communications director Heidi Frederickson. "The history of the Star Tribune poll is flat-out false."

Frederickson provided a chart to back up that claim. The final Star Tribune poll before the 2004 election showed John Kerry with a 49 percent to 41 percent lead over President George W. Bush in the state; Kerry carried Minnesota 51 percent to 48 percent. Similarly, the final Star Tribune poll conducted in the 2002 Senate race showed Democrat Walter Mondale with a 46 percent to 41 percent margin over Republican Norm Coleman. Coleman won the race 50 percent to 47 percent.

In the final statewide polls the Star Tribune has conducted since 1944, it has underestimated the Republican candidate's performance in 35 of the 57 surveys, according to the Kennedy campaign's analysis. The newspaper's poll underestimated the Democratic candidate's showing 34 times. Neither number is particularly surprising since polls necessarily provide an option for undecided voters that is not offered at the ballot box.

Rob Davies, who conducted the survey for the Star Tribune, defended the poll's methodology, which, he told the Star Tribune, "is the same as 2004, when it was one of the most accurate polls in the nation." He added that the same survey that showed Klobuchar far ahead also showed Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) with a 43 percent to 41 percent lead over state Attorney General Mike Hatch (D).

The poll came out of the field one day after Klobuchar began running her first TV ads of the campaign. (While that may have influenced the final day sample somewhat, it's unlikely to have biased the poll in any major way.) The ad details Klobuchar's tough on crime record as Hennepin County Attorney, an early attempt to shore herself up against the coming attack that she is too liberal for the state. In it, she talks about prosecuting a corrupt judge, "He was a Democrat and so am I, but that didn't matter because this guy had to go to jail." (View the ad at the bottom of this post.)

Regardless of where you come down on validity of the Star Tribune polling results, Kennedy's campaign is sure to take a perception hit nationally over the next few days and weeks. While we tend to doubt that Klobuchar is up by nearly 20 points, she clearly is ahead at the moment (a poll conducted for her own campaign in April put her lead at eight).

We've had this race ranked as the most likely Democratic seat to turnover since we began ranking Senate races on the Friday Line, but this poll gives us real pause. Polling in Washington state, Maryland and New Jersey all show those races considerably closer -- a strong argument that they should leap over Minnesota in our rankings. Tune in two weeks from now for our latest take on the state of the Senate campaigns.

washingtonpost.com's Katherine Deming contributed to this report.

Watch Klobuchar's TV ad below:

Democrat Amy Klobuchar began running TV ads this week in her quest for the Minnesota Senate seat being vacated by Mark Dayton (D). Her opponent is Republican Congressman Mark Kennedy. (Courtesy Klobuchar campaign)

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 17, 2006; 6:07 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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