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Bunning Finds Lead Slipping Late in the Game

Incumbent’s Slip-Ups Make Race Nearly Even, at Least in Democratic Polls

Just two weeks away from Election Day, first-term Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) finds himself locked in a rapidly tightening race, thanks to several self-inflicted political wounds.

The extent of the damage from Bunning’s mishaps along the campaign trail is fiercely disputed by his campaign and that of his opponent, Democratic state Sen. Dan Mongiardo. But they have ranged from comparing his opponent’s appearance to that of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s sons to the revelation that he used a TelePrompTer during a debate.

Both campaigns rushed out polls with entirely different results Monday as they fought to control the race’s final 14 days.

A previously unreleased Bunning poll conducted by Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies showed the incumbent ahead 50 percent to 39 percent.

That survey was in the field Oct. 12-14, sampling 600 likely voters with a 4 percent margin of error.

Mongiardo’s Monday poll showed the race tied at 43 percent. It is the second survey released by Mongiardo over the past 10 days that shows Bunning mired in the low 40s — a zone of severe danger for an incumbent this late in a campaign.

“The reason why people were excited about this race from the beginning of the cycle is that Bunning’s numbers were always lackluster,” said Fred Yang, who conducted the polls. “We have a good candidate with a good message and a good background in a year in which health care is a big issue.” Mongiardo is an otolaryngologist by training.

Seeking to further create momentum, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has given $466,000 in coordinated dollars to Mongiardo in the past week — the maximum allowable under federal law — and are touting his candidacy to donors nationally.

“The DSCC’s ability to react quickly to these unexpected changes on the ground has positioned Dr. Dan to unseat what now seems to be a vulnerable incumbent in a staunchly conservative state,” DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) wrote in an e-mail fundraising pitch to supporters over the weekend.

Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.) also spent Monday working the phones to round up more cash from fellow Senators to be spent in Kentucky.

Even so, the DSCC has yet to commit to an independent-expenditure television campaign on Mongiardo’s behalf — an investment national strategists consider necessary to balance the fundraising advantage Bunning enjoys.

Bunning’s campaign says the hubbub about the Senator’s alleged struggles are centered on polling that they consider politically motivated and inaccurate.

“Jim Bunning is going to win re-election and we sure aren’t worried about a Democratic push poll,” said Jon Deuser, the Senator’s chief of staff.

The term “push poll” refers to a negative phone call designed to spread damaging information about a particular candidate, rather than scientifically sample public opinion.

The testing of potential negatives is standard fare in polling so long as it comes after the head-to-head matchup and any favorable or unfavorable ratings of the candidates have been asked.

Yang, a respected member of the political polling establishment, insisted that his methodology was entirely above-board. “This was not a push poll,” he said.

No independent or Republican surveys have been released in the race of late.

An early September poll by the Louisville Courier-Journal showed Bunning with a 51 percent to 34 percent edge.

Regardless of the exact figures, however, operatives on both sides of the partisan aisle acknowledge that the race has closed over the past two weeks.

Much of the movement is attributed to the coverage of an Oct. 11 debate in which Mongiardo was in studio at the Lexington television station while Bunning appeared via satellite from Washington.

In the debate, Bunning used a TelePrompTer for his opening and closing statements — a fact that he refused to disclose in the immediate aftermath of the debate. Mongiardo insisted the use of the device ran contrary to the debate’s rules, which specified that no props be used.

Bunning’s campaign responded that the candidates were allowed to use notes — including a TelePrompTer.

Democrats have turned the controversy into the latest piece of evidence that Bunning, who turns 73 at the end of the month, is no longer up to the mental rigors of the job.

The Louisville Courier-Journal, which has long had a frosty relationship with Bunning, ran an editorial suggesting that his allegedly reclusive behavior suggested the real possibility of a “serious health concern.”

Deuser dismissed the notion that Bunning hasn’t been an active presence on the campaign trail, noting that during the August recess he visited 31 counties.

The real test as to whether national Democrats truly believe they can defeat Bunning will come this week as the DSCC makes final spending decisions in its targeted races.

To date, the DSCC has bought no time in Kentucky, focusing its resources instead on the eight open-seat contests and the challenge to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Without a last-minute independent expenditure by the DSCC, Mongiardo is likely to be heavily outspent during the campaign’s final 14 days, because he has failed to raise significant funds from anyone but himself.

As of Sept. 30, Mongiardo has raised $1.7 million, approximately $700,000 of which came from his own pocket. He had just $345,000 on hand at the end of last month.

Niloff, Mongiardo’s spokesman, insisted that in the past two weeks, fundraising has picked up considerably.

From Dec. 1, 2003, to Sept. 30, 2004, Mongiardo raised $69,000 online. From Oct. 1 until Monday, the campaign brought in $81,000 through the Internet, according to Niloff.

Even so, Bunning has far outdistanced Mongiardo in fundraising throughout the campaign, ending September with nearly $3.3 million left to spend.

“He is very comfortable with where he stands with the people of Kentucky, and we know we have got the resource advantage to get our message out and win this thing,” Deuser said.

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