Republican Sen. George Allen and his Democratic challenger, Jim Webb, are still locked in a very close race, according to a statewide poll published Sunday.

Allen was favored by 49 percent of those surveyed last week and Webb was the choice of 47 percent, the Washington Post poll found. Two percent supported independent Gail Parker and 2 percent were undecided.

The results are within the poll’s sampling margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll is the third independent statewide survey in about two weeks to show the race either tied or within the margin of error. An Oct. 6 Gallup poll showed Allen at 48 percent and Webb at 45, and a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. poll on Sept. 29 showed both at 43 percent.

The race is considered pivotal because a Democratic victory in once reliably Republican Virginia could signal a shift of power from the GOP to the Democrats in the Senate in the Nov. 7 midterm election.

The Post conducted telephone interviews with 1,004 randomly selected likely Virginia voters from Oct. 10-12. It was the newspaper’s first poll on the Virginia Senate race.

As late as July, Allen held a comfortable double-digit lead over first-time candidate Webb, a former Republican who says he switched parties out of disgust with President Bush’s policies, particularly the invasion of Iraq.

Once regarded only as a warm-up race for a presumed 2008 Allen presidential bid, the race became competitive in August after Allen singled out a man of Indian descent before a mostly white crowd at a rally and called him “macaca,” a racial slur.

The poll found Webb’s support is strongest in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions. Allen was stronger downstate and in rural areas.

It also mirrored other national polls that showed widespread public unhappiness with Bush’s handling of the Iraq war. Fifty-six percent disapproved. But 63 percent of the respondents said their feelings about Bush would not influence their Senate vote.

Webb, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War who later served as President Reagan’s Navy secretary, has tied Allen closely to Bush on the Iraq war issue. Allen supports Bush’s intent not to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq until Iraqi forces can stanch sectarian violence that continues to escalate. Webb advocates a phased withdrawal based on negotiations between the United States and Iraq’s neighbors to restore order in the region.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press

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