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Poll shows a topsy-turvy race for 23rd CD

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It's anybody's race and the third party candidate is for real. That's the news from a poll released yesterday of the 23rd district special election to replace John McHugh in Congress. Martha Foley and David Sommerstein took a close look.

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Democrat Bill Owens holds a 4 point lead over Republican Dede Scozzafava, 33 to 29 percent. That's almost identical to the poll's margin of error of 3.9%. Scozzafava held a 7-point lead in a poll two weeks ago.

But perhaps the poll's most interesting finding is the gain made by Conservative Party candidate Douglas Hoffman. He has 23 percent, up 7 points from the last poll. And Hoffman now leads in the central New York portion of the sprawling district. Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg says Hoffman is picking up independents and can no longer be called a "spoiler."

Scozzafava still leads on her home turf, St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis counties. Bill Owens - from Plattsburgh -- leads in the northeastern portion of the big district.

The central New York portion of the 23rd is home territory to none of the candidates - that's where the Conservative, Hoffman, did best. He picked up 14 points, and leads there. Democrat Bill Owens polls just 3 points behind Hoffman, with Scozzafava 13 points. Greenberg says voters say they don't know much about Hoffman, but they know he's not a Democrat

It's clear that the region outside the culturally defined North Country may play a decisive role on Election Day.

Late yesterday, the National Republican Committee announced it'll make a six-figure contribution to in support of Scozzafava - though its spokesman declined to be specific.

To help us drill down into the poll results and how the special election is shaping up, David Sommerstein joins us.

David, what else do you see of interest in the poll?

Two things.  First, Republican Dede Scozzafava is getting hammered in the ad war.  According to Politico, she's being outspent 10 to 1 by Democrats, 4 to 1 by conservatives.  And it's not just her opponents who are doing the damage.  The poll shows Scozzafava's campaign is perceived as being the most negative.  And of respondents who saw Scozzafava's own ads, 28% said the ads made them less likely to vote for her, compared to just 12% saying they'd be more likely to vote for her.  And get this, 28% of Republicans said they'd be less likely to vote for her after watching the ads. 

Martha: All this for a well-respected Assemblywoman who was the best-known candidate going into this race, and probably the front runner.  Yesterday we reported that Scozzafava is low on campaign cash and national Republicans seem reluctant to give.  But despite the poor poll results, the GOP is coming through for Scozzafava.

David: Yeah.  It appears that news first reported by Politico that the Republican National Committee had been absent from this race kind of shamed the GOP into action.  The RNC said yesterday it was giving at least 185,000 dollars to help Scozzafava's campaign, possibly more.

I called Jim Ellis yesterday.  He's the Republican chairman for Franklin County and the vice-president for the state GOP.  He's a social conservative and didn't seem particularly thrilled with Scozzafava, but he said he'd be a party man and "do what he has to" to support her.  Ellis lamented the state of the campaign in general, how Washington insiders are drowning out local voices with attack ads...

"The national parties, both the Democrats and Republicans, and the Club For Growth for the Conservatives are basically running away," Ellis said.  "They're just like a bunch of rhinos on the charge.  Nobody can slow 'em down.  They can do whatever they want."

The candidates' messages are being very carefully managed by the national parites.  And that brings us to the second point from the poll.  16% of voters remain undecided, and 17% said they could still change their minds.  Voters still don't know a lot about these candidates, especially about Hoffman.  Pollster Steven Greenberg says that's helping Hoffman right now.

"They don't know much about Hoffman, if anything at all.  But they do know he's not a Democrat or a Republican.  So they're with him," said Greenberg.  "I would call that a more emotional electoral decision.  But I think as we get closer to election day, emotion tends to drain a bit and gets replaced by more knowledge and more intellectual thought about the issues and the candidates."

Martha: So what do we know about the issues?  It seems like we know a lot more about this race than we do about the candidate and where they stand on the issues.

David: You're absolutely right.  It's becoming the defining feature of this very topsy-turvy race.  We have a Republican who supports same-sex marriage, and abortion rights.  We have a Democrat who opposes same-sex marriage and wasn't even a Democrat until this campaign started.  And we have a staunch Conservative who's picking up more independents than the two moderates.  Go figure.

Martha: OK, so a few issues, what about health care?

david: Scozzafava and Hoffman largely oppose President Obama's health care plan.  Owens supports it, but he opposes cuts to Medicaid to pay for it.  On the public option, Owens and Scozzafava haven't said...they seem to be trying to steer clear of that debate.  Hoffman says he's against government run programs.

Martha: Taxes and the economy?

David: Owens and Scozzafava both say they would have supported the stimulus package.  Hoffman says he wouldn't have.  Owens wants to let the Bush tax cuts expire.  Scozzafava and Hoffman want them to continue.

Martha: Afghanistan?

David: Scozzafava and Hoffman want President Obama to send more troops in right away.  Owens wants to follow Obama's cautious, deliberate approach. 

Martha: The issue that's become the biggest this week, really, is the lack of focus on issues, the lack of shoes-on-the ground campaigning, and the lack of a debate.

David: I'll tell you, I don't know how the average voter could have found these candidates so far except by accident.  Even the press is struggling to find out where these three are on a daily basis.  There have been a lot of fundraising events, some private visits to plants and universities and business groups, some fire-up-the-troops visits to local campaign offices.  But very, very few public appearances where people can get to know the candidates and ask some questions.  It seems like every media and civic organization in the region is trying to set up a debate, but so far, there's not one confirmed debate with all three candidates.  Owens and Scozzafava have agreed to a debate in Syracuse on Thursday, October 29th, just five days before election day.  Hoffman hasn't agreed yet.

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