WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Rob Portman, a senior official under former President George W. Bush, has opened a commanding 13-point lead over his Democratic rival in a Senate race in Ohio, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday said.
Portman, budget director and U.S. trade representative in Bush’s administration, leads Democrat Lee Fisher 50 percent to 37 percent barely more than one month before the November 2 congressional election.
Portman has pulled away from his rival — he led Fisher by 7 percentage points in an early August survey — in a race dominated by voter worries about the economy and stubbornly high unemployment. They are vying for the seat or retiring Republican Senator George Voinovich.
“Portman is really solidifying his lead — it’s starting to look insurmountable,” Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson said. “Fisher hasn’t been able to raise his profile enough to make a dent.”
Fueled by voter dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama, the tepid economy and high unemployment, Republicans are threatening to retake control of the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate.
The contest in Ohio is one of more than a dozen crucial races that will determine if Republicans gain a Senate majority that would allow them to slam the brakes on Obama’s legislative agenda.
The poll found a majority of Ohio voters brushed aside Democratic charges that Portman would represent a return to the failed economic policies of Bush, with 60 percent saying his work with Bush made no difference in their vote.
Another 30 percent of registered voters said his work with Bush made it less likely they would vote for Portman — including one in five independents — and 9 percent said it made them more likely to vote for him.
In the race for Ohio governor, incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland has pulled into a virtual dead heat with Republican challenger John Kasich. Kasich leads by 47 percent to 46 percent after holding a 9-point edge in August.
A majority of Ohio voters, 51 percent, said they disapproved of Strickland’s job performance, unchanged from last month.
Because of severe job losses, Ohio has been a testing ground for Obama and Democrats of their national strategy of reminding voters about the Bush years and warning of the possible drawbacks of putting Republicans back in charge.
“That argument doesn’t seem to have done much for Democrats in Ohio,” Jackson said. “It’s a pretty small bang for the buck.”
Portman has had greater success attacking Fisher, the lieutenant governor and head of the state’s economic development program, for his failure to bring new jobs to the state.
Ohio’s manufacturing sector has been hard hit in recent years. The state unemployment rate was 10.1 percent in August, down slightly from 10.3 percent in July but higher than the national rate of 9.6 percent in August.
The sluggish economy and high joblessness tops the list of Ohio voter concerns, with 78 percent citing it as the state’s biggest problem — almost exactly the same as in August. Weak government and corrupt politicians were a distant second at 12 percent.
The poll was released on the first day of early voting in Ohio, a political battleground state that Obama won by five percentage points in 2008.
The poll offered some good news for Democrats, who showed signs of gaining ground on Republicans in their enthusiasm for voting. This month, 79 percent of Democrats said they were certain to vote compared to 67 percent in August.
Republican enthusiasm remained largely unchanged, with 91 percent saying they are certain to vote.
“Democrats generally don’t engage until later in the cycle, and they are showing signs now of becoming more involved,” Jackson said. “President Obama seems to be engaging more now, too, and that is having an effect.”
Republican plans to repeal Obama’s healthcare overhaul were backed by 50 percent of Ohio voters, while 43 percent said it should remain in place.
Nearly a majority of voters, 49 percent, backed Republican arguments that Bush-era lower tax rates set to expire at the end of the year should be extended for all income levels.
Obama’s proposal to keep the lower rates for most Americans but let them expire for individuals making more than $200,000 a year was backed by 35 percent of voters.
The Ipsos poll of 600 registered voters, including 440 who said they were likely to vote, was taken from Thursday to Saturday.
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 Philip Barbara