A Des Moines Register poll released on Saturday put Republican Joni Ernst up six points over Democrat Bruce Braley among likely voters in Iowa. There are reasons not to over-hype this one poll, but it seems clear Ernst has at least a small lead, and without Iowa, it’s hard to see how Dems hold the majority.

At last night’s Iowa Senate debate, however, Ernst gave Democrats a gift by revealing her actual position on the minimum wage with useful clarity: She opposes any federal minimum wage and doesn’t favor a hike in the state wage. Whether this will be enough is an open question, but it was a key moment.

Some analysts have concluded that Ernst did generally did well at the debate and that Braley didn’t do her enough damage. Still, the question is whether Democrats can use her minimum wage answer to their advantage in the days and weeks ahead. Here’s the exchange, clipped by Iowa Democrats:

Asked what Iowa’s minimum wage should be, Ernst replied: “I do believe that is something that needs to be set by the states, because our Iowa cost of living is very low. Currently it is at $7.25 an hour, and I’m someone that worked the minimum wage way back when, when it was much lower. But the way we can combat this and do better for Iowa families is by growing our economy.”

The Des Moines Register claims Ernst “ducked” the question on the proper state minimum wage. No, she didn’t. She basically confirmed it should remain at $7.25, explicitly because the cost of living in Iowa is “very low.” Does this mean she thinks it should be lower in her own state than elsewhere? Sure sounds like it. Meanwhile, Braley thinks the federal minimum wage should be raised to $10.10 per hour. At the debate, he noted that Ernst believes that “if you’re working a full time job on the minimum wage in Iowa, you’re going to be making $15,000 a year. I think that’s wrong.”

The Iowa Senate race had already featured one of the sharpest contrasts on the minimum wage of any race in the country. Even national Tea Party hero Tom Cotton has endorsed a state minimum wage hike, bowing to political reality even in deep red Arkansas. This Iowa debate exchange only deepens this contrast.

How much will this matter? Hard to say. The Ernst campaign and Republicans have worked hard to frame this race as a personality contest, to obscure the importance of the candidates’ differences on issues such as the minimum wage, Personhood, the privatization of Social Security, and whether to keep the Department of Education. Republicans have done a very good job of this. And commentators seemed to suggest that Ernst’s debate performance kept this dynamic in place, with one noting: “She looks right at the camera. She seems to radiate a certain kind of confidence.”

On the other hand, pundits have been known to assign too much weight to debate optics, and too little to the policy contrasts on display, in gauging voter reaction. In this case the policy contrast is pretty stark. We’ll see.

* SENATE FORECASTS SHIFT TOWARDS GOP: The New York Times’ Upshot now gives Republicans a 67 percent chance of winning the Senate, and the Washington Post Election Lab gives Republicans a 76 percent chance. FiveThirtyEight has it at 60 percent. HuffPollster puts it at 58 percent.

Overall, there has been very clear movement towards the GOP since earlier this month, which probably reflects a barrage of good polls for Republican candidates in Colorado, Iowa, Arkansas, and Alaska. The question now is whether this will persist through the debates and into mid-October.

* SILVER: DON’T HYPE THOSE INDIVIDUAL POLLS! Nate Silver has a good piece explaining why Democrats shouldn’t panic yet, even if the Des Moines Register poll is considered very high quality:

Sounds like it’s time for Democrats to panic? Not quite, at least according to the FiveThirtyEight model. Republicans are favored to take control of the Senate but the race is close; essentially the same conditions have held all year. As of Sunday morning, the GOP’s odds of winning the Senate are 60 percent in the forecast, only half a percentage point better than where they were after our previous update on Friday….no one poll ought to change your perception of the campaign all that much.

Nice try, but no one will listen.

* EARLY VOTING FAVORS DEMOCRATS: Political scientist Michael McDonald has a terrific piece looking at the advantage Democrats have already built up in early voting in Iowa and North Carolina, which leads to this conclusion:

In North Carolina, perhaps the early vote confirms that Hagan indeed has a narrow lead over Tillis in the polls; the signal is in the same direction. The intense voter mobilization underway in Iowa may mean high turnout….any number of polls are showing Democratic candidates doing better among registered voters than likely voters. The higher the turnout, the more the electorate will look like profile of registered voters, which could be decisive for who wins Iowa and Senate control.

As noted here before, the Democrats’ hopes turn on whether their operation can successfully shift the composition of the electorate. Keep on reading and you’ll see that the following polls illustrate this nicely.

* HEADING FOR RUNOFF IN LOUISIANA: A new CNN poll finds Senator Mary Landrieu ahead of GOPer Bill Cassidy by 43-40 with a third party candidate included — short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Among registered voters, Landrieu leads in the head-to-head runoff by 51-45.

But in the head-to-head runoff among likely voters, Cassidy leads Landrieu by 50-47 — once again underscoring how much is riding on the Democratic program to turnout low and moderate-propensity voters.

* HAGAN STILL AHEAD IN NORTH CAROLINA: Another CNN poll finds Senator Kay Hagan edging challenger Thom Tillis by 46-43 among likely voters. She holds a larger lead, 46-39, among registered voters, which again means getting out those irregular voters will be crucial to ensuring a Hagan victory. The polling average has Hagan up 3.2 points — and she has led in every single poll this month — suggesting a small but clear and persistent lead.

* TILLIS HITS HAGAN OVER TERRORISM: Meanwhile, Tillis becomes the latest Republican to run an attack ad over terrorism, with a new spot that claims: “While ISIS grew, Obama kept waiting — and Kay Hagan kept quiet. The price for their failure is danger.”

You’d think this would open Tillis up to questions as to what he would do instead. He has refused to say whether he would have joined Hagan in voting to arm the Syrian rebels. Also: Would he support sending in ground troops?

* THE INVISIBLE SUPER-RICH: Paul Krugman details just how vast the wealth at the very top has grown, and explains that inequality isn’t a potent issue because Americans remain unaware of the magnitude of it:

Pundits sometimes wonder why American voters don’t care more about inequality; part of the answer is that they don’t realize how extreme it is. And defenders of the superrich take advantage of that ignorance. When the Heritage Foundation tells us that the top 10 percent of filers are cruelly burdened, because they pay 68 percent of income taxes, it’s hoping that you won’t notice that word “income” — other taxes, such as the payroll tax, are far less progressive. But it’s also hoping you don’t know that the top 10 percent receive almost half of all income and own 75 percent of the nation’s wealth, which makes their burden seem a lot less disproportionate.

As Krugman concludes: “Today’s political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea what our society is really like.”

 * AND TED CRUZ IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT! According to one Cruz adviser:

“At this point it’s 90/10 he’s in,” one Cruz adviser said. “And honestly, 90 is lowballing it.”

Awesome! National Journal claims Cruz sees foreign policy as his main advantage. I’m looking forward to seeing how far to the right Cruz’s positions on immigration and gay rights will yank the GOP presidential primary field.