WASHINGTON Ohio Republican Rob Portman holds a narrow lead over Democrat Lee Fisher in a Senate race marked by voter worries about a stumbling economy and high unemployment, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday.
Portman, director of the Office of Budget and Management and the U.S. Trade Representative under former President George W. Bush, leads Fisher 43 percent to 36 percent among likely voters less than three months before the November 2 election for the open Senate seat.
In the race for governor, Republican challenger John Kasich leads incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland by 48 percent to 39 percent among likely voters in Ohio, a critical battleground state that often reflects national voting trends.
The Senate race in Ohio is one of about a dozen races that could decide whether Republicans pick up the 10 seats they need to reclaim Senate control and slam the brakes on President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
The sluggish economy and high joblessness tops the list of Ohio voter concerns by far, with 79 percent citing it as the state's biggest problem. Weak government and corrupt politicians were a distant second at 12 percent.
Ohio's manufacturing sector has been hard hit in recent years. The state had a 10.4 percent unemployment rate in June, higher than the 9.5 percent national average.
Ohio voters also were pessimistic about the future, with nearly two-thirds saying the state was headed down the wrong track and less than one-third believing it was headed in the right direction.
"Concerns about the economy are so high, and that seems to be turning into an advantage for Republicans," Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said. "People are seeing job losses in their back yard, and that is a real factor in Ohio."
Portman and Fisher, lieutenant governor of Ohio, are battling to replace retiring Republican Senator George Voinovich. The Ohio seat is among about a half-dozen open Republican seats the party must defend in competitive races.
REPUBLICAN EDGE IN ENTHUSIASM
The poll confirmed national surveys showing Republicans have a big advantage in enthusiasm about the election, with 75 percent of registered Republicans in Ohio certain they will vote and only 52 percent of Democrats certain about voting.
That could dramatically boost Republican turnout for November's congressional elections, which typically have a lower turnout without a presidential election to build interest.
"There is no momentum and no energy at all in the Democratic base," Clark said.
Fisher, who survived a tough primary challenge while Portman coasted to the Republican nomination, faces a huge money disadvantage heading into the final months. At the end of June, Portman reported $8.9 million in the bank to Fisher's $1.3 million.
Fisher and Ohio Democrats have labeled Portman a Bush Republican who would return the country to the economic policies that led to the current difficulties. Portman has countered that Fisher has failed to save Ohio jobs as the state's lieutenant governor.
Ohio voters spread the blame for the economic downturn. Bankers and Wall Street were identified by 93 percent of voters as the biggest culprits, with "Americans spending beyond their means" blamed by 88 percent and Bush's administration blamed by 86 percent.
Obama's administration got off relatively lightly, with 69 percent saying it was mostly or partially to blame for the struggling economy.
The Ipsos poll of 600 registered voters, including 417 who said they were likely to vote, was taken from Friday to Sunday. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish, and the results were weighted to Ohio's registered voter population according to U.S. Census figures.
The full survey of registered voters has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, while the smaller sample of likely voters has a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)