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« Strategy Memo: Back To The Front | Blog Home Page | Bush Still Raising Money »

Smith, Merkley Tight

Two polls showing Democratic challengers running close to or ahead of their Republican rivals in Mississippi and North Carolina, which were once thought to be third-tier hopes at best, could be a coincidence. Then again, a third could be a trend. And here it is: A new poll conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee shows the new Democratic nominee running barely behind two-term GOP Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon.

The survey, taken by the Feldman Group for the DSCC between 5/12-16 -- that is, before the state's May 20 primary in which State House Speaker Jeff Merkley narrowly defeated Portland attorney Steve Novick -- tested 800 likely voters for a margin of error of +/- 3%. Questions pitting Smith and Merkley were released to the public.

General Election Matchup
Smith.......45
Merkley...42

If President Bush is going to have any impact on an election this year, it could well be in Smith's state, where a highly motivated electorate that came out in huge numbers this week very much dislikes the nation's chief executive. Only 22% of Oregonians see Bush doing an excellent or good job, while 78% call his performance fair or poor. Just 17% of the state sees the country headed in the right direction, while 71% say things are going in the wrong direction.

One number that should make observers wonder, though, is Smith's rating. Just 29% of poll respondents say he's doing an excellent or good job, while 55% say his performance is only fair or poor. That job approval rating is much lower than any numbers published on Smith yet, suggesting the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's advertisements slamming the incumbent may be working well, or that this particular sample just happens to really dislike him.

Then again, this is the first live-call poll made public that we've seen. Don't be surprised if Smith fires back with his own poll showing a much wider margin between the two candidates in coming days. Often the biggest impact a poll like this has is to force the other side to release their own internal numbers.

For more on the contest between Smith and Merkley, check out our backgrounder from last summer.