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Democrats lead in races for 11 of 15 crucial Republican-held U.S. House seats a month before Nov. 7 elections, putting them within reach of seizing control of the chamber, according to Reuters/Zogby polls released Wednesday.
Republican incumbents are at particularly high risk, the polls found, with seven of nine trailing their Democratic challengers in the high-stakes battle for control of the U.S. Congress.
Democrats must pick up 15 seats to reclaim control of the House, and the polls found Republicans were also behind in four of six open seat races in districts they won in 2004.
"This is a dismal showing for Republicans," pollster John Zogby said. "Republicans ought to be very, very nervous."
The polls, taken Sept. 25 to Oct. 2 in 15 of the most competitive House districts across the country, overlapped by three days the sex scandal involving Florida Rep. Mark Foley’s explicit Internet messages to teenage male congressional pages.
The scandal and questions about how their leaders handled it have mushroomed into a political crisis for Republicans, who worried it could demoralize the party’s core supporters, particularly social and religious conservatives.
"It’s not just Mark Foley, but also what did the speaker know and when did he know it, and the House leadership, what did they know?" Zogby said. "This could turn into a freefall for Republicans."
The telephone polls of at least 500 likely voters in each of the 15 districts had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
The deficit for Republicans was at least 5 percentage points in nine of the 11 races they trailed, including double-digit deficits for incumbent Reps. Charles Taylor in North Carolina and Heather Wilson in New Mexico.
Eight Republican incumbents earned support from fewer than 40 percent of voters who were asked if they deserved re-election, a low number that usually indicates severe jeopardy for an incumbent.
WOOING CORE SUPPORTERS
Zogby said Democrats were doing better than Republicans at winning over their core supporters and led among independents in many races as well.
Voter doubts about the Iraq war, the economy and the future of the country had driven down ratings for President Bush and the Republican-led Congress this year, creating a strong political environment for Democratic calls for change.
Not included in the polling were several Republican-held districts where Democrats are favored, including that of Foley, who has resigned from the House, former Rep. Tom DeLay’s Texas district, Indiana Rep. John Hostettler’s district and the Pennsylvania seat of Rep. Don Sherwood, who suffered his own sex scandal last year.
Combined with those seats, the polls show Democrats could be close to gaining the 15 seats they need.
Just two Republican incumbents lead their races in the districts polled. Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut, who represents one of the most Democratic Republican-held districts in the country, led Democrat Joe Courtney by 44 percent to 41 percent, within the poll’s margin of error.
In Kentucky, Rep. Geoff Davis led former Democratic Rep. Ken Lucas by 42 percent to 36 percent.
Two incumbents in normally Republican Indiana, Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel, trailed Democratic challengers. Chocola was behind Democrat Joe Donnelly 48 percent to 39 percent, and Sodrel lagged Democrat Baron Hill by 46 percent to 38 percent.
Other Republican incumbents who trailed were Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, behind Democrat Dianne Farrell 46 percent to 41 percent; Rep. Thelma Drake of Virginia, who trailed Democrat Phil Kellam 46 percent to 42 percent; and Rep. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, behind Democrat Lois Murphy 43 percent to 41 percent.
In the Ohio district of former Republican Rep. Bob Ney, who resigned earlier this year after pleading guilty in an influence-peddling scheme, Democrat Zack Space leads Republican Joy Padgett 45 percent to 35 percent.
In another closely watched race in the Denver suburbs, Democrat Ed Perlmutter leads Republican Rick O’Donnell 45 percent to 34 percent. In the Iowa race to replace Republican Rep. Jim Nussle, who is running for governor, Republican Mike Whalen leads Democrat Bruce Braley 47 percent to 34 percent.