Middle ground up for grabs in Senate race

| Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

Michael Moreken is stuck in the middle.

On his left stands Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak, a Delaware County congressman who voted for the health care overhaul that will strip $500 million in Medicare Advantage subsidies. On his right is Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey, a former congressman and one-time investment banker who is "too close to Wall Street," said Moreken, 75.

"If there was a third person, I'd vote for him," said Moreken, a Republican from Drexel Hill.

He's among the 11 percent of undecided voters who likely will swing this Senate contest between two ideological opponents grappling to represent a moderate state, according to a Susquehanna Polling & Research survey conducted for the Tribune-Review. The poll found Toomey leading Sestak 45 percent to 42 percent, with a 3.5 percentage point margin of error.

"This is a race that will be won in the middle," said Jim Lee, Susquehanna's president. The poll surveyed 800 likely voters from Sept. 23 to 26.

Among each candidate's supporters, a nearly equal percentage said they're "definitely" voting for their chosen candidate -- a measure of how loyal a candidate's support is. Thirty-one percent of Toomey supporters and 30 percent of Sestak's said they're locked onto their candidate.

"The fact that they're both tied on intensity ... says to me that this race looks tight," Lee said.

Sestak, 58, and his Democratic allies began airing attack ads linking Toomey, 48, of Lehigh County to his Wall Street past. That has helped Sestak keep the race close in a year when Republicans have the upper hand, Lee said.

But dissatisfaction with President Obama's performance makes voters such as Vivian Lokay, 70, of McDonald wary of giving his party another vote in the Senate. Forty-one percent of voters approve of the job Obama is doing and 49 percent disapprove, according to the poll.

Lokay, a Democrat, supports government aid to small businesses -- something Democratic lawmakers passed and Obama signed this month -- but is "not too happy" with Obama overall.

"He wants to give amnesty to all these (illegal immigrants) who committed crimes," said Lokay, who said she is undecided about the Senate race. "I don't understand. If I committed a crime, I wouldn't get amnesty."

Toomey leads among voters in the southwest, northeast and traditional Republican strongholds in the middle of the state. Sestak leads in Allegheny County, Philadelphia and the northwest. The vote-rich "collar" counties around Philadelphia -- where both became known during their congressional careers -- split evenly, with each candidate getting 45 percent support.

"That's very significant," Lee said. "Sestak cannot win if he doesn't win the four suburban counties."

Independents support Sestak over Toomey, 41 percent to 30 percent. Eighty-three percent of Republicans support Toomey, compared with Sestak's 70 percent support among Democrats, according to the poll. But there are 1.2 million more Democrats than Republicans registered in Pennsylvania.

"This is still a very Democratic state," Lee said. He noted that former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum, who first won his Senate seat during the Republican wave of 1994, "won this state by just 2.5 percentage points. We are not talking about huge margins here in this (2010) race."

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