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AREA VOTERS DEADLOCKED IN RACE FOR SENATE SEAT

Even though a lot of Erie County television sets were tuned into the Rumble in Buffalo Wednesday night, the debate did not appear to tip the U.S. Senate battle here to either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Rick A. Lazio, according to a Buffalo News poll conducted Thursday and Friday.

The two candidates are split in a statistical tie in Erie County.

The News poll of 400 Erie County residents who are likely to vote shows the first lady with 46 percent, compared with 41 percent for the Long Island congressman and 13 percent undecided. But given the margin for error of plus or minus 5 percent, pollster John Zogby of Zogby International says the Erie County poll -- like most statewide polls -- shows the local race a toss-up.

And since overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County can often vote Republican, Zogby says the results are especially significant.

"Erie County is a swing county," the Utica-based pollster said, adding that for Clinton to be ahead or in a statistical tie at this stage is encouraging for her.

But Zogby noted that 13 percent undecided in Erie County could cast a pall over any good news for Clinton. That's because, as a universally recognized figure, he believes even undecided voters are thoroughly familiar with her. Undecideds could break toward Lazio, he said, especially as they learn more about him.

"That 13 percent undecided is not good news for her because she's been in Buffalo and Erie County so much," he said. "Even that 13 percent undecided among Republicans is not much of a problem for him because they already know so much about her."

The poll found that while a majority of respondents -- 54 percent -- watched the debate, 56 percent of those viewers said it had no effect on their vote.

Among those who say their vote was influenced by the debate, 17 percent said they would vote for Clinton, with 12 percent siding with Lazio. Five percent of debate watchers said they would vote against Clinton as a result of watching, while 8 percent said they would vote against Lazio.

"I think there is a slight advantage to her on that score," Zogby said. "But there were no knock-down blows. They went into the debate close, and they emerged from the debate close. This will go right down to the wire."

The Erie County sampling is expected to generate a fair amount of interest across the state because it's recognized as a Democratic county that can go Republican, and its combination of urban, suburban and rural voters reflects the state as a whole.

"It's important and a bellwether," Zogby said of Erie County. "Right now things are working there for Hillary, but those undecideds might not be with her."

Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis agreed that Clinton must win Erie County in order to win the election. But he said that after 18 months of campaigning, she still has not climbed over the 50 percent mark.

"The Democrats have an enrollment advantage here of 120,000 voters, so I think we're doing OK," he said. "George Pataki has shown that with the right candidate and the right message, we can carry Erie County."

But Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon said the local "Hillary plan" is working.

"We're working the base and concentrating on those inner-ring suburbs," he said. "Places like Tonawanda, Hamburg, Cheektowaga and West Seneca will be really key battlegrounds in this county."

Pigeon said it will be those suburban voters who could determine the Erie County result, since those Democrats can turn to a mainstream Republican.

"They are very discerning voters who vote for people and not party," he said, emphasizing the need for Clinton to work those areas.

Though subsets of the poll carry a larger margin for error than the main sample of 400 respondents, they do provide a flavor for the way voters are thinking. For example, the poll shows Clinton with a wide lead in the City of Buffalo, 69 to 20 percent, while Lazio leads outside the city, 49 to 37 percent.

Clinton leads with men, 49 to 45 percent, and with women, 44 to 37 percent.

Respondents to the poll displayed strong emotions for both candidates, especially after watching the debate.

"She's a fine lady, and what the president did to her is not her fault," said Bill Melski of West Seneca, who added that the debate strengthened his resolve to cast his vote in the Clinton column.

"He tried to hit her with that paper," he said, referring to Lazio's attempt to have Clinton sign a pledge to refrain from accepting soft-money contributions. "That turned me against him."

But Barbara Smith of Eggertsville said that Lazio represents a "home-grown" candidate and that the debate also strengthened her resolve.

"I watched, and now I definitely want Lazio," she said. "I don't like her evasions and lies. She does a good job at that."

Kaylyn Perez of Hamburg may represent the most crucial group of voters at this point -- undecideds. She watched Wednesday's debate and acknowledges she's "really torn."

"I like Hillary Clinton and her strength, but I don't like her because of what happened with President Clinton," she said, referring to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"That really bothered me," she added. "That 'stand by your man' thing is really a problem."

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