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RURAL VOTE KEY FOR DEMOCRATS’ SENATE HOPES

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Among whites in Missouri who attend church once a week or more, Talent led McCaskill, 65% to 30%. In Tennessee, Corker also easily led among this group, 62% to 29%, even though Ford has stressed his religious faith. Webb trailed Allen in Virginia, 55% to 40%, among white churchgoers.

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Among rural voters, Talent led McCaskill, 56% to 37%. Allen topped Webb, 60% to 33%, and Corker outpaced Ford, 62% to 27%.

The large suburban population in northern Virginia places Webb in a better position to overcome these disadvantages than his Democratic counterparts in Tennessee and Missouri. But all three face a tough climb to victory if they do not improve their performance among these typically conservative voting blocs by election day.

One of the most consistent trends in the surveys is the link between attitudes toward Bush and preferences in the Senate contests.

In each state, at least 80% of those who approve of Bush’s job performance said they would support the GOP Senate candidate. Meanwhile, those who disapprove of Bush’s performance preferred the Democratic candidates at rates ranging from 67% for Menendez to 81% for Ford and Webb.

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Other poll results illustrate the long shadow Bush casts over the election. Democratic candidates enjoy their largest Senate leads in the two states where Bush’s approval ratings are the lowest -- 34% in New Jersey and 39% in Ohio.

But in the three states that are looming as the likely pivotal races for control of the Senate, Bush’s approval numbers are higher: 44% in Virginia, 47% in Missouri and 49% in Tennessee.

Those Bush approval numbers, however, are weaker than they were as election day neared in 2004. In this campaign’s final two weeks, perhaps the critical question is whether the president retains enough strength on terrain he once dominated to help Republicans hold back a tide that could end their control of the Senate.

ronald.brownstein@ latimes.com

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Times associate polling director Jill Darling Richardson contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A look at five close Senate races

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Q: If the November election for U.S. senator were held today, for whom would you vote ...

Ohio

Sherrod Brown

Democrat 47%

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-

Mike DeWine

Republican 39%

-

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Someone else/ Don’t know 14%

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Missouri

Jim Talent

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Republican 48%

-

Claire McCaskill

Democrat 45%

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-

Someone else/ Don’t know 7%

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Tennessee

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Bob Corker

Republican 49%

-

Harold Ford Jr.

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Democrat 44%

Someone else/ Don’t know 7%

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New Jersey

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Robert Menendez

Democrat 45%

-

Tom Kean Jr.

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Republican 41%

Someone else/ Don’t know 14%

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Virginia

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Jim Webb

Democrat

47%

-

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George Allen

Republican 44%

-

Someone else/ Don’t know 9%

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Q: Would you say George W. Bush’s policies on terrorism and national security have made the country more or less secure over the past six years?

More secure

Ohio: 46%

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Missouri: 53%

Tennessee: 53%

New Jersey: 51%

Virginia: 50%

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Less secure

Ohio: 36%

Missouri: 27%

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Tennessee: 30%

New Jersey: 32%

Virginia: 36%

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No difference one way or the other

Ohio: 17%

Missouri: 18%

Tennessee: 16%

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New Jersey: 15%

Virginia: 12%

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Q: All in all, do you think the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, or not?

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Not worth it:

Ohio: 63%

Missouri: 53%

Tennessee: 50%

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New Jersey: 73%

Virginia: 59%

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Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush handles his job as president?

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Ohio

- Approve: 39%

- Disapprove: 60%

Missouri

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- Approve: 47%

- Disapprove: 52%

Tennessee

- Approve: 49%

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- Disapprove: 50%

New Jersey

- Approve: 34%

- Disapprove: 63%

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Virginia

- Approve: 44%

- Disapprove: 52%

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Q: Do you think of your vote in the Senate race as a vote for or against George W. Bush and his policies?

Ohio

For Bush: 19%

Against Bush: 33%

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Not about Bush’s presidency: 45%

Don’t know: 3%

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Missouri

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For Bush: 19%

Against Bush: 33%

Not about Bush’s presidency: 45%

Don’t know: 3%

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---

Tennessee

For Bush: 27%

Against Bush: 27%

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Not about Bush’s presidency: 45%

Don’t know: 1%

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New Jersey

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For Bush: 23%

Against Bush: 43%

Not about Bush’s presidency: 30%

Don’t know: 4%

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Virginia

For Bush: 19%

Against Bush: 44%

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Not about Bush’s presidency: 33%

Don’t know: 4%

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Notes: Results are among adult likely voters. Results may not add up to 100% where not all categories are shown. Full question wording and more poll results are available at: www.latimes.com/timespoll

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How the Poll was conducted

The Times Poll contacted 3,630 adults in five state samples -- Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Virginia. Ohio sample has 653 registered voters, including 507 voters deemed likely to vote; Missouri: 768 registered, including 593 likely voters; Tennessee: 666 registered, including 515 likely voters; New Jersey: 495 registered, including 314 likely voters and Virginia: 529 registered, including 385 likely voters. Among all registered voters in each state, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points; and for likely voters in Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee it is 4 points; for Virginia it is 5 points and for New Jersey, it is 5.5 points. Likely voters were determined by a screening process which included questions on intention to vote, certainty of vote, interest in the campaign and voting history. All interviews were conducted by telephone Oct. 20-23, 2006. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation, and random digit dialing techniques allowed listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Adults were weighted slightly to conform with their respective census figures for sex, race, age and education, and in New Jersey, by party registration. For certain subgroups in all samples, error margins may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Telephone interviews in New Jersey and Virginia were supervised by Interviewing Services of America, Van Nuys.

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Source: Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll

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