In the wake of polls that showed Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) with less than 50 percent support in his reelection bid against Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa), GOP officials called the Iowa Senate contest "the hottest race in the country."

The Iowa Poll published in the Des Moines Register this week put Harkin at 47 percent -- his lowest point since the poll began measuring voter sentiment in the race 16 months ago. Tauke was at 34 percent, down 6 percentage points since March. A poll for several Iowa television stations a week earlier had Harkin at 47 percent and Tauke at 37 percent.

"Harkin has less than half of Iowans committed to his candidacy," Tauke said. "It's a great opening for us." Tauke acknowledged that he had not made "a lot of movement these months," but said he "had been solidifying my base."

Anita Dunn of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said the poll numbers "confirm that it will be the competitive race everyone knows it will be." She added, "I'd be concerned if I was Tom Tauke and had spent $2.5 million of the $3 million I had raised and not moved my own numbers appreciably since January."

Both candidates brought up the savings and loan scandal at their first debate Sunday.

Harkin announced that he turned over $6,500 in thrift contributions to the state treasury and challenged Tauke to do the same. Tauke refused, saying that most of his thrift contributions were from Iowans -- unlike Harkin, who he said "was at the top of the list" in taking money from savings and loans in this election period.