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Obama popularity put to test in off-year polls

The Republican opposition hoped to draw blood on Tuesday in three off-year elections seen as testing US President Barack Obama's popularity 12 months after his Democratic party swept to power.

world Updated: Nov 04, 2009 11:25 IST

The Republican opposition hoped to draw blood on Tuesday in three off-year elections seen as testing US President Barack Obama's popularity 12 months after his Democratic party swept to power.

Gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia and an intriguing battle for a New York congressional seat will not change the power balance in Washington, where the Democrats have a hefty majority.

But with midterm elections across the country next year, the three contests were being scrutinized for signs of Obama's resilience in the face of bruising debates on the economy, health care reform, and Afghanistan.

"Obama needs at least one of the three wide-publicized elections to maintain momentum. He'll be hard-pressed to get one," Rutgers University political analyst Ross Baker wrote on the respected Politico website.

The hottest race was in New Jersey, with Democrat Jon Corzine -- the incumbent governor in a heavily Democratic state -- fighting desperately to avoid defeat by former Republican prosecutor Chris Christie.

Latest polls showed them in a statistical dead heat, after Christie lost an earlier lead. The performance of an independent third candidate could decide the race.

Obama's heavy campaigning for Corzine culminated with a rally on behalf of the flagging candidate on Sunday. But Republicans, who last won New Jersey's governorship in 1997, are gunning for an upset.

"A victory for Republicans in deep blue New Jersey would send shock waves through the country that would be felt right up to the doors of the White House," Republican blog redstate.com said.

Virginia's gubernatorial race appeared poised to go to the Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, despite Obama's campaigning on behalf of Democrat Creigh Deeds.

The state was captured by Obama in his election last year, the first time a Democratic presidential contender had managed to do so since 1964.

A dramatic contest was under way in New York state's 23rd congressional district, where the official, moderate Republican candidate withdrew in the face of advances by an outside contender backed by senior conservative Republicans.

The outsider, Doug Hoffman, ran with the tiny Conservative Party, but has become a standard bearer for the same wing of the Republican Party organizing nationwide "tea party" protests against Obama.

Hoffman surged in the polls over the weekend, taking a lead over the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens.

His surprise success exposed a strategic divide in the Republican Party, where some favor concentrating on the rightwing base and others a centrist position that might attract independent voters.

Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava, endorsed her Democratic opponent Owens, rather than Hoffman, when she withdrew from the race.

Democrats control Congress in Washington, but the national picture is muddier than 12 months ago when Obama led his party to a crushing victory over the Republicans.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll last month showed 36 percent of Americans with a favorable opinion of the Republican Party to 54 percent unfavorable, while 53 percent took a favorable view of the Democrats and 41 percent unfavorable.

A Gallup poll last week found Obama's job approval ratings sharply down from 62 to 53 percent between his second quarter and third quarter in office.

However, he retains majority approval, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Tuesday said, with 54 percent of the country approving the president and 45 percent not.

Also on the ballot Tuesday are mayoral posts in major cities, including New York City, Atlanta, Houston, Detroit and Pittsburgh, as well as referendums in Maine and Washington state on allowing same-sex marriage.

New York's mayor, the media tycoon Michael Bloomberg, looks likely to win a third term after getting City Council to scrap a mayoral two-term limit and spending a record amount of his own money on the campaign.

Bloomberg is an independent, but running on the Republican ballot. His main challenger, the Democrat Bill Thompson, has received almost no support from the Obama camp.

Latest polls showed Bloomberg with a shrinking, but comfortable lead of 12 points, down from 18 points a week earlier.