Allen and Webb in Virtual Tie, Post Poll Says

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), right, greets supporters during his 11th annual hoedown fundraiser Oct. 7.
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), right, greets supporters during his 11th annual hoedown fundraiser Oct. 7. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) and Democratic challenger James Webb are virtually tied in a race that could shift the balance of power in Washington and which reinforces the differences between Northern Virginia and the rest of the commonwealth, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Allen gets 49 percent, compared with 47 percent for Webb, within the 3 percentage point margin of error for the poll conducted over three days last week. With few respondents saying they are undecided and most seemingly locked in for their candidate, the poll indicates that the candidates' strategies for turning out supporters will be vital and that changes in the national political climate could tilt the outcome.

President Bush's approval rating among Virginians who say they are likely to vote is about the same as it is nationally. But fewer people in the state say their feelings about Bush will influence their Senate vote, compared with the number in a national poll. And in a sign that the greater Democratic enthusiasm seen nationally is also evident in Virginia, the poll finds that fewer of those who say they are certain to vote Nov. 7 identify themselves as Republicans than a year ago.

The three issues that poll respondents cite most frequently as extremely important -- the situation in Iraq, the war on terrorism and ethics in government -- are all volatile subjects heading into the campaigns' final weeks. The poll shows that Allen has a sizable advantage among those who cite terrorism and that Webb is not doing as well as Democrats nationally in turning the Iraq war and Republican congressional scandals into issues that work for his side.

Northern Virginians are increasingly Democratic -- more distrustful of the war in Iraq and the president and more supportive of Webb than the rest of the state, according to the poll. The region is the economic engine of the commonwealth and the source of much of its growth, and on many issues, its urbanizing and diverse population seems to agree more with the rest of the nation and less with those who live south of the Rappahannock River.

No matter who wins, a race filled with drama and controversy has won unprecedented attention from the electorate. Fifty-two percent of likely voters in the survey say they are following the race "very" closely; the previous high in Post polling goes back to 1989, when 39 percent of Virginians showed high interest in L. Douglas Wilder's bid to become the first black candidate to be elected governor in any state.

Independent Gail Parker receives 2 percent of the support in the poll.

For Webb, the 60-year-old Democratic Party newcomer who launched his campaign eight months ago, the poll provides new evidence that his underfunded, long-shot bid has created one of the country's most competitive races.

"We are extremely encouraged by these numbers," said Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd. "We've always maintained that the more people learned about the real George Allen, the more they would feel he's wrong for Virginia. We will build upon this momentum, and we know we will win."

But the poll contains plenty of concern for the former Navy secretary and author from Falls Church. Webb owns a solid lead only in Northern Virginia, and his supporters, as a group, are far less enthusiastic about his candidacy than are Allen's voters. One of the selling points for his candidacy was that his military background and service in the Reagan administration would appeal to Republicans, but he does no better among the GOP in the Post poll than Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) did in the state in the 2004 presidential race.

Allen, 54, can be content that after what might be the most tumultuous campaign any incumbent has seen this election cycle, he still has a bond with Virginians who elected him governor in 1993 and senator in 2000. A strong majority of those in the poll say they think of him as honest, trustworthy and a leader, and 57 percent approve of how he's doing in the Senate.

"We've always known the race was going to be close," said Allen consultant Chris LaCivita. "After being subjected to one of the meanest campaigns of attempted character assassination in the commonwealth's history, we are confident that the people are going to vote on issues. When they vote on issues, Allen wins."

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