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The red-hot contest between Kathleen C. Hochul and Chris Collins for the 27th Congressional District remains too close to call heading toward Election Day, according to the latest Siena Research Institute poll commissioned by The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV.

The new survey shows Republican Collins capturing 48 percent of likely voters, compared with 47 percent for Democrat Hochul, well within the margin of error of 4 percentage points. The poll also shows that while Collins now takes the lead in Erie County, his home-turf advantage is offset by similar gains for the incumbent in the district’s eastern end.

But while the poll, which was conducted Wednesday and Thursday, remains inconclusive as to the results of Tuesday’s election, it reveals trends that could prove troublesome for Hochul. They include:

• Hochul has lost her lead in the district’s most populous county, Erie.

• Collins has now eclipsed her in favorable ratings.

• Hochul is now perceived as running a more negative campaign, a switch from the last survey in early October.

It all leads Siena pollster Steven A. Greenberg to note that after three polls dating to August and millions spent in advertising, the Hochul-Collins race has ended up exactly where it began – virtually deadlocked.

“It’s staggering how little this race has moved in 11 weeks,” Greenberg said. “After $5 million, it’s gone from virtually dead even to virtually dead even. It’s amazing.”

But several significant developments are found in the subsets of the survey, some boding well for Collins, the former Erie County executive.

His favorable ratings have jumped considerably, for example, increasing from 46 percent favorable and 40 percent unfavorable in early October to 50 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable now.

Hochul, meanwhile, went from 47 percent favorable and 39 percent unfavorable one month ago to 47 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable last week.

And while in early October she posted a healthy 51 to 45 percent lead in their mutual home county of Erie, where about 38 percent of the voters reside, Collins now enjoys a 52 to 46 percent advantage.

Hochul, meanwhile, has turned the tables in the other seven counties of the district – going from a 48 to 44 percent deficit to a 48 to 45 percent lead.

“So the geography flipped,” Greenberg said, “but in the horse race, everything else stayed the same.”

The pollster also said Collins should be heartened by even stronger support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who was leading 51 to 42 percent in October and leads 55 to 43 percent now.

“The bad news for her is that Romney has widened his lead,” Greenberg said, noting that Collins has devoted a significant amount of his advertising and rhetoric to linking Hochul to President Obama – who has only a 44 percent favorable rating in the district, compared with 57 percent for Romney.

A significant piece of good news for Hochul is that she continues to lead among crucial voters who are unaffiliated or belong to minor parties – 50 to 42 percent. Unaffiliated voters make up 25 percent of the district, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by eight percentage points.

Russell Darling, a Canandaigua Republican who responded to the poll, reflected the anti-Obama sentiment in the district. He said he will vote for Collins because of Collins’ business background and Hochul’s association with the president.

“Kathy Hochul is nothing but a rubber stamp for Barack Obama, and I would never vote for someone like that,” said Darling, 79, a retired long-haul truck driver.

“Businessmen know how to create jobs,” he added. “No politician ever created a job.”

Despite Hochul’s drop in favorable ratings, some voters, such as Joe Bailey, of Newstead, still express disapproval of Collins.

“Chris Collins has always been self-centered and arrogant to the point where he doesn’t actually know what the area needs,” said Bailey, 47, who is unemployed and lives in Olcott Beach in Niagara County. “Kathy Hochul has put herself out there. She has not voted the party line 100 percent and knows her constituents.”

Another poll result explains why Hochul has attempted to counter the Romney effect by seeking the assistance of popular Democrats such as former President Bill Clinton and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Both have campaigned for her in the Rochester area over the past few weeks.

Siena reported that Clinton has a 55 percent favorable rating, compared with 43 percent unfavorable, while 69 percent of those surveyed in the overwhelmingly Republican district give Cuomo a favorable rating.

Still, the poll offers more worrisome trends for Hochul, especially in the question that measures whether respondents prefer her or someone else to represent them in Congress.

In October, the response was 44 percent for each candidate. Siena’s most recent poll, however, shows Hochul with 45 percent and “someone else” with 51 percent.

In the perception of how the candidates are running their campaigns, Hochul’s numbers have also shifted down.

In October, 34 percent of respondents saw Collins as waging the more negative campaign, while 30 percent said Hochul was. But those numbers have now switched – 39 percent say the congresswoman is conducting the more negative effort, while 34 percent say it’s the former county executive.

Collins reacted to the poll late Saturday by saying he always expected a tough race. He said his new edge in Erie County and the fact that he is viewed in a more favorable light by the district’s voters speak well for his chances Tuesday.

But while acknowledging that he and Hochul remain virtually tied in overwhelmingly Republican turf, he blamed her “disingenuous” message.

“Kathy has been very adroit in leading voters to think she is an independent moderate,” he said. “She has been somewhat effective in the portion of the district where voters don’t know me, but I don’t think it has been effective in that portion of the district where the voters do know me.”

Collins said Hochul is perceived as waging the more negative campaign because of her ads, including one that accused him of eliminating jobs when he took over the former Buffalo China Co., which was closing. The News and several other media outlets found the ad “mostly false” or false, and Collins said that ad has backfired on her.

“Her nasty campaign has very much hurt her and, to some extent, helped me in the eyes of the voters,” he said.

Hochul, meanwhile, said she feels encouraged by her showing in the district’s eastern end, where she is not well-known. She also said that being virtually tied with Collins in a district dominated by the GOP only underscores her strong position.

“The fact that I am in a statistical dead heat shows my message of independence has broken through,” she said.

She blamed ads aired independently by super PACs for the negative tone of the race, but she once again dismissed any thought that her own Buffalo China ad has contributed to the new perception.

“We stand by that ad,” she said.

The Siena poll of 636 likely voters was conducted Wednesday and Thursday.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com