Murray vs. Rossi Senate race neck-in-neck

WASHINGTON -- The Washington state Senate race is going down to the wire, with a McClatchy-Marist poll released Friday showing incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray maintaining a 1 percentage point lead over Republican challenger Dino Rossi among likely voters.

Murray was ahead 49-48 in the poll taken Oct. 26-28.

"The bottom line is this is a race that could go either way," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which conducted the survey.

A McClatchy-Marist poll two weeks ago also showed Murray with a 1 percentage point lead -- an edge she's maintained even as independent groups have flooded Washington with almost $18.3 million in advertising.

Among registered voters, Murray's lead was a little wider, at 47-44. But Miringoff said likely voters, who will most certainly vote, are a better gauge.

Another poll released Friday gave Murray a six-point lead. The KCTS 9/KPLU Washington poll showed Murray with a 51-45 lead among likely voters.

"Patty Murray appears to be ahead in this contest," said University of Washington pollster Matt Barreto, who conducted the poll. "I think you're going to see that play out on election night."

But since the race began the polls have varied widely, with some giving Rossi a slight lead, others giving Murray a double-digit lead and a bunch showing it's too close to call.

The Washington Senate race, along with ones in California and Nevada, has attracted considerable attention nationally as political analysts increasingly believe the outcome could determine control of the Senate.

Independent groups, including party committees and those linked to big business and unions, have spent more on the Washington Senate race than in all but three other Senate races -- Colorado, Pennsylvania and Illinois, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group that tracks independent expenditures using Federal Election Commission records.

Nearly 54 percent of the independent expenditures have been used to oppose Murray and 46 percent to oppose Rossi. Miringoff said the advertising has driven up the negatives of both candidates.

"That means there won't be a lot of change," he said."At this point, it is not about convincing voters to change their minds, it's about convincing them to show up."

The latest McClatchy-Marist poll showed that 51 percent of Murray's supporters are enthusiastic about her candidacy, up 7 percentage points from the earlier poll. Enthusiasm among Rossi's supporters remains at 56 percent.

"There is a bit of a rallying among Murray supporters," Miringoff said.

The phone survey included a representative sample of 838 registered state voters selected to cover each region of the state in proportion to its population. The declared margin of error was 3.5 percentage points for all voters and 4 percent for likely voters.

The poll showed Murray running strong among likely voters in King County, 62-37. The question is whether that will be enough to overcome Rossi's solid leads in greater Puget Sound, 52-45, the Olympic Peninsula and Southwest Washington, 54-44 and Eastern Washington 57-36.

Women favor Murray 52-44, while men favor Rossi 52-46.

With voting already under way in Washington, Miringoff said those who already have voted pretty much mirror the broader population of likely voters.

"You shouldn't play poker with early voters in Washington state," he said. "They don't show their hand."

President Obama still does better in Washington than most states. Though he won Washington state by more than 17 percentage points in the 2008 presidential contest, 47 percent of the state's likely voters approve of the job he's been doing and 47 percent disapprove.

When it comes to the economy, Washington state voters are optimistic about the future. Forty-one percent say the worst is yet to come and 48 percent say the worst is past, the poll found.

Washington voters also felt, by a margin of 59-34, that Obama inherited the nation's economic mess rather than caused it.

With a history of close races in Washington state, Miringoff said it could be days or weeks before control of the Senate is decided.

"This could go into extra innings," he said.

* Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008; lblumenthal@mcclatchydc.com