For the first time, Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has opened a significant lead against Republican Helen Delich Bentley in their race for Maryland's 2nd Congressional District, according to a new poll.
The Maryland Poll - conducted for The Sun and The Gazette newspapers - found that Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive, leads the former congresswoman 46 percent to 38 percent, with 15 percent undecided with less than a week before Election Day. When undecided voters leaning one way or the other are taken into account, Ruppersberger's lead increases to 49-40.
"The race has turned from a statistical dead heat into a contest that appears to be Ruppersberger's to lose with one week to go," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted the poll.
The survey of 478 voters, taken Sunday though Tuesday, is the first published poll in which either candidate showed a lead greater than the margin of error, which is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The numbers suggest that in the waning days of the race, as both sides have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television advertising, Ruppersberger has done a better job of shifting attitudes about himself and his opponent.
Early polls showed Bentley with an advantage in the ratio of voters who viewed her favorably vs. unfavorably. But in this survey, 52 percent of voters said they had a favorable impression of Ruppersberger and 33 percent unfavorable, compared with a 44-41 ratio for Bentley.
"Whatever voters have heard about her in the last 30 days, many of them have some problems with the way the Bentley candidacy is being portrayed," Haller said.
The Bentley campaign saw the poll as a good sign - they said their own surveys from recent weeks had shown them even further behind, hurt by a barrage of negative advertising paid for by the Maryland Democratic Party.
"[Gov.] Parris Glendening has spent over $1 million in independent expenditures to give Dutch a seat," said Michael S. Kosmas, Bentley's campaign manager.
"We had fallen back even farther than your poll shows. Our national party didn't even start fighting until a week ago, and we've closed back that ground, and more of it is closing every day."
Democrats began running so-called issue ads supporting Ruppersberger more than a month ago, but the Republican party only began airing pro-Bentley ads last week.
Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the party will likely still be "heavily involved" in Bentley's campaign to the end.
Ruppersberger's campaign spokesman Rick Binetti said the Democrats were heartened by the results.
"Polls are always nice when they go your way, but there's a job to do, and we've got to continue pushing our message and using that message to turn out the vote," he said.
As in the last Maryland Poll, taken a month ago, Bentley wins handily in the Harford County portion of the district, and Ruppersberger wins easily in Baltimore.
But in Anne Arundel County, where Ruppersberger has campaigned heavily, he has pulled even, and in Baltimore County, which makes up the bulk of the district, he has pulled solidly ahead.
The poll contains other troubling signs for Bentley.
Nearly half of undecided voters said they believe it is important to send Democrats to Congress to offer a check to Republican power, while only 14 percent believed it was better to elect Republicans to help President Bush with the war on terror.
Ruppersberger has also solidified his base among Democrats and especially among African-Americans, the poll shows. Black voters, who make up more than a quarter of the district's electorate, favor Ruppersberger, 77 percent to 10 percent.
"If the Democrats come home to the congressional nominee in sufficient numbers, there's just no way for Bentley to overcome that," Haller said.
Ruppersberger also appears better situated financially for the final days of the campaign. He has raised more money than Bentley - a little more than $1 million to her $730,000 at last reporting - and he has more cash on hand.
Bentley still has a major fund-raiser, with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as the headliner, and has collected more than $70,000 in the past week.
Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, who recently did an analysis of campaign ads in the race with other area professors of politics, said Ruppersberger's negative ads have been more sharply focused and better packaged than Bentley's, Smith said.
Ruppersberger has also aired a simultaneous track of positive advertising featuring Mayor Martin O'Malley asking voters to pick his friend, the Baltimore County executive. Bentley has not had a purely positive ad on the air in recent weeks.
"If you don't have the positives, your image gets filled in by your opponents' negative spots," Smith said. "And Martin is like the Cal Ripken of Maryland politics, particularly in the Baltimore metropolitan area."
Della Britt-Golden, 68, an African-American voter from Cherry Hill, said it was Ruppersberger's in-person campaigning, not television ads, that convinced her to vote for him.
She said he came with his entire family to speak at the Cherry Hill Senior Center, and he impressed her with his friendliness and sincerity.
"Guess what? I'm going to get as many people to vote for him as I can," said the retiree. "He was so warm, and so many of the other politicians never even bothered to come see the elderly, especially in Cherry Hill."