WASHINGTON Republican Rand Paul, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, has a narrow lead among likely voters in a Senate race in Kentucky, where economic worries top voters' concerns, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday said.
Paul leads state attorney general Democrat Jack Conway by 45 percent to 40 percent among likely voters in the November 2 election. In a broader pool of registered voters, the two are deadlocked at 40 percent.
The sluggish economy leads among voter worries, with 58 percent naming it as the state's biggest problem. It finished ahead of education issues, which was second at 16 percent.
The Kentucky battle is one of about a dozen races that could decide Senate control in November elections. Republicans must pick up 10 seats to reclaim a Senate majority and have a bigger say on President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
Paul, the son of libertarian Republican Representative Ron Paul, is one of four Republicans backed by the conservative Tea Party to clinch a Senate nomination along with Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado and Marco Rubio in Florida.
While the Tea Party, a loosely organized movement that favors lower taxes and limited government, has had success in some primary votes it is unclear if it can extend its support beyond its Republican conservative core in November.
The poll found Kentucky Republicans do not enjoy the big advantage in campaign enthusiasm found in other state and national polls. Republicans lead Democrats only 59 percent to 57 percent in having a high level of interest in the race.
Republicans lead by 69 percent to 62 percent among those completely certain they will vote, a smaller margin than in many states where Democrats worry the lack of enthusiasm in their ranks would diminish turnout in the November election.
"The political atmosphere in Kentucky does not seem nearly as polarized. Democrats in Kentucky really act more like Republicans," pollster Julia Clark of Ipsos Public Affairs said.
While the number of Kentucky voters listing the economy as their top concern is high, it does not match the 70 percent to 80 percent who ranked it as the top worry in hard-hit states like Nevada and Ohio.
Kentucky's jobless rate fell slightly to 10 percent in June, higher than the 9.5 percent national rate. The state is also beset by the same sluggish real estate market and struggling business climate that has plagued the rest of the country.
"The concerns are a little more spread out in Kentucky," Clark said.
Slightly more than half of Kentucky voters, 53 percent, think the state is heading down the wrong track, with 38 percent believing it is headed in the right direction.
GOVERNOR WINS APPROVAL
Democratic Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear wins approval for his job performance from 52 percent of Kentucky voters, the poll found.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wins job approval from 50 percent, while Obama's job performance wins the approval of 44 percent, with 55 percent disapproving.
Paul has been embroiled in several controversies since winning the Republican nomination. He was forced in May to back away from comments questioning whether the landmark Civil Rights Act should apply to small businesses.
More recently, a GQ magazine article alleged he took part as a college student in an apparent prank that included blindfolding and tying up an unidentified woman and trying to force her to smoke marijuana.
Despite a flurry of coverage of the issue in Kentucky, the poll found the allegations have had little impact on the campaign. More than half, 53 percent, said they had not heard about the story.
Among those who had heard about it, 57 percent believed the stories were fabricated or greatly exaggerated and only 28 percent believed they were true or mostly true.
Seven in 10 registered voters said the stories would have no impact on their vote, with 18 percent saying the stories made them less likely to vote for him and 9 percent saying more likely.
"This is not having much of an impact on the race," Clark said.
The Ipsos poll of 600 registered voters, including 435 who said they were likely to vote, was taken Friday through Sunday. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.
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 4.7 percentage points.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)