Morella opens slight lead in 8th over Van Hollen, new poll says

Survey shows incumbent up 2 percentage points with 5-point error margin

October 30, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Republican Constance A. Morella, scrapping to hold onto the suburban Washington congressional district she has represented for 16 years, has narrowly pushed ahead of her Democratic challenger after attacking him in a series of ads, a new poll shows.

Morella leads Democrat state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. by 2 percentage points, 44 percent to 42 percent, with 14 percent undecided, according to the poll of likely voters conducted for The Sun and The Gazette newspapers. Her lead climbs to 3 points when undecided voters leaning one way or another are included. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Turnout is a key to Van Hollen's chances, according to the poll, because he holds a 14-point advantage among those calling themselves "infrequent" voters. It helps him that most voters in the district - where Democrats enjoy a 2-1 voter registration advantage - say they would like to see Democrats assume control of the House of Representatives.

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to assume House leadership. The 8th District is being targeted by both national parties because it is so hotly contested and is considered a swing seat in the battle for a House majority.

A month ago, Van Hollen led by 3 percentage points. Since then, Morella - who had never before run an ad criticizing an opponent by name - has hammered away at her opponent. Among other accusations, she said he backed legislation to cut income taxes for Maryland's wealthiest citizens, and that he distorted the record of Del. Mark Shriver, who was Van Hollen's opponent in the primary.

"I do believe Morella has been effective at chipping away at Van Hollen," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted the survey. The polling of 563 voters was conducted Oct. 26-28.

"Van Hollen had come out of the primary with enormous momentum," Haller said. "The partial news here is Van Hollen's negatives have risen without it apparently hurting Morella."

Morella's favorability rating is 76 percent - with 18 percent unfavorable - and her popularity extends to Democrats and even to self-identified Van Hollen voters, the poll shows. Van Hollen also is viewed positively, but his unfavorable ratings rose from 11 percent to 26 percent in the past month, according to the poll. Fifty-six percent said they had a positive impression of him.

Aggressive candidates often pay a political price if voters perceive their criticism as strident. Morella, 71, has avoided a backlash - partly, according to political experts, because she is well-known and well-liked.

"If someone starts with name recognition and is viewed favorably, they have credibility going in," said Dave Beattie, Florida-based president of a public opinion and research firm.

But Steve Jost, Van Hollen's campaign manager, said a poll conducted for the campaign by the firm of Cooper and Secrest Associates shows that Van Hollen's negative ratings have barely budged. Jost said the latest Secrest poll, conducted a few days ago with a sample of 505 people and a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points, had Van Hollen ahead 48 percent to 41 percent.

Jost characterized Morella's ads as "factually wrong and a personal character attack not substantive on the issues." He said the national GOP has been helping finance critical ads and has been recruiting volunteers to aid Morella.

Jost said the attacks have mattered little because "people didn't pay attention to the ads during all the sniper stuff." He referred to the shootings that began Oct. 2 in Montgomery County and ended with two arrests Thursday.

Morella's campaign has rejected the "negative" label Van Hollen used to characterize the ads. "They may have drawn a little more of a contrast, but they've been poking fun, they've been humorous in nature," said Tony Caligiuri, Morella's campaign manager.

In one ad, Morella depicts Van Hollen as trying to aid the wealthy in a tax cut - an accusation he disputes. "To hear this guy talk, you'd think he was the Republican," the ad concludes.

Another television spot features Shriver's photograph, and notes that Shriver had accused Van Hollen of distorting his record during the Democratic primary campaign. Shriver, who has since endorsed Van Hollen, said recently he doesn't agree with Morella's use of his image or comments in her ad.

Morella has also run ads that don't mention Van Hollen, including one in which Democratic voters offer testimonials on why they admire her.

Because Republican voters in the district are such a minority, Morella's campaign says it needs to win the backing of more than a quarter of the Democrats to triumph. She has been battling the perception - reiterated in the poll - that most of the district's voters believe it is important that Democrats win a House majority.

Van Hollen has made control of the House a campaign theme. But Caligiuri said yesterday, "I think one reason we've seen her pick up a little bit of steam is that it's become universally accepted that the Congress is not going to switch leadership."

Caligiuri is hoping for more voters like Margaret Weston, a retired government worker from Bethesda who said yesterday that she'd prefer to see the Democrats lead the House - but will vote for Morella anyway.

"I'm not going to vote against Morella just for that," Weston said. "I'd rather have a good local representative."

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