A poll on Saturday put U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) seven points behind his opponent, Republican Joni Ernst. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The morning after poll results showed him losing ground in the race for a U.S. Senate seat, Democrat Bruce Braley did his best Sunday to put on a happy face.

“You know the only poll that I’m counting on? It’s the poll right here in my gut,” Braley told supporters crowded inside a coffee shop in this picturesque college town. “What you know is what you feel on the ground — that’s tremendous excitement and enthusiasm.”

Braley will need a lot of both to beat Republican Joni Ernst, who has taken a seven-point lead in the latest Des Moines Register poll in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. The news came as Braley was barnstorming the state with Harkin and former president Bill Clinton, who joined Braley at a 57th-birthday bash in Waterloo on Saturday night.

During the visit here Sunday, Braley and his surrogates were left to argue that the real race was much closer than the Register’s Iowa Poll suggested.

“Listen, folks, let’s get this out in the open. I’m sure you read about this Iowa poll,” Harkin said. The crowd groaned in acknowledgment.

Republican candidate for Senate Joni Ernst listens during a campaign stop in Iowa on Nov. 2. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

“Anyway, there were seven polls, all had him ahead or tied or by one point behind,” Harkin continued. “Even the Fox News — and you know which way they lean — had it basically tied.”

The size of Ernst’s lead, along with the Register’s prominence in this crucial presidential state’s politics, sent shock waves through a Democratic campaign struggling to catch up. Braley has hurt himself with a series of missteps — including dismissing Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s farming background and engaging in a feud with a neighbor over her chickens — while facing a charismatic and tough opponent in Ernst.

The latest polling averages have Ernst ahead by at least a couple of points — an outcome that could help Republicans clinch control of the Senate.

Crucial timing

News of the seven-point poll result broke Saturday evening as Braley was basking onstage with Clinton at the annual “Bruce, Blues and BBQ” hootenanny to celebrate the congressman’s birthday. Clinton roused the crowds on a three-stop tour through central Iowa, urging them to get out and vote for Braley. Earlier that morning, James Taylor serenaded voters in Des Moines with a rendition of “America the Beautiful” and a reminder that “our future is at stake.”

In Waterloo, the birthday party had the air of a ceremonial passing of the torch with the attendance of Harkin, whose annual steak fry has become the preeminent Democratic gathering in Iowa.

“This is the next steak fry,” Harkin said in an interview.

For Braley the timing of the results couldn’t have been worse, but for Ernst it was perfect. The news dropped right before she took the stage in front of a group of supporters in Cedar Rapids. When she announced that she was up by seven points, the crowd erupted into applause that lasted half a minute.

“Okay, this is phenomenal news,” she said. “That’s great, but the work is not done. This is just a poll. The hard work is November 4th.”

Ernst had a relatively light day Sunday, holding one public event with about 50 people, almost all of whom she hugged. She will begin her final get-out-the-vote tour Monday morning, starting at 7 a.m. and making 12 stops in 24 hours (including a 3:45 a.m stop at a Perkins restaurant in Sioux City).

Race was a ‘dead heat’

Harkin’s retirement marks the first time in 40 years that there has been an open Senate seat in Iowa. When Braley was elected to the House in 2006, many people here believed he was a senator-in-waiting.

The Braley team, which insists that the race is tied based on internal polls, was hopeful that the events with Clinton and Harkin would provide crucial momentum going into the final days of the contest. But as Clinton was firing up the crowd in Waterloo on Saturday evening, the Register’s poll numbers were released.

“This race looks like it’s decided,” pollster J. Ann Selzer said in announcing the results.

Murmurs spread through the media area of the Electric Park Ballroom, an old rock-and-roll joint. Braley’s aides immediately saw the news, but the birthday boy was up on stage — sitting on a high-top stool and smiling — as it happened.

“This race is close,” Clinton said.

Clinton ended his speech to wild applause, and the guests — most of whom were not the types to be checking Twitter while a former president was talking — filed out of the building. Braley stood briefly chatting with guests before being quickly ushered out of the building. Harkin’s handler said he wouldn’t be doing interviews.

“I don’t watch the polls,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Scott Brennan said when asked. Then he conceded that he does: “It’s disappointing to see. But that’s not the number we are seeing on the ground.”

Within an hour, campaign manager Sarah Benzing had fired off a “memo to interested parties” reminding journalists that this poll was different from all others.

“With the exception of today’s outlier, every single poll of Iowa voters in the last few days has shown this race to be a dead heat.” She said the campaign’s model showed Braley leading among independents who cast early votes.

The night wasn’t over for the Braley team, though. A group of aides, including senior consultant Jeff Link and chief of staff John Davis, headed to the nearby Isle Casino to see if they could turn their luck around. Everyone reportedly won, including Link, who won $1,400 playing craps.

In Decorah on Sunday, Winneshiek County Democratic Co-Chairman Georgie Klevar said the race remains winnable.

“I’m tending to believe that it’s going to be a very close race, regardless of what the polls say,” Klevar said. “I really believe it’s going to be an extremely close race, and I’m hopeful that we win.”

Braley is doing whatever he can to keep that hope alive. As he ended his speech in Decorah, he reminded people that there have been improbable wins in the past. A staffer handed him an iPad, and he flipped it around for the audience to see.

On the screen: a photograph of Harry Truman holding up the infamous front-page story declaring “Dewey Beats Truman.”

“This is what we’re looking forward to on Tuesday night,” Braley said. “And with your help it’s exactly what we’ll get.”