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The Harold Stassen of the north country

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The first independent poll for the new 21st Congressional District race was issued this week and you could hear the slap across the sprawling district: Matt Doheny, the Republican golden boy whose anointed path to the House of Representatives has been thwarted through no fault of his own, is down by 13 points with 53 days til the election. His strongest reaction to the news: yes, but Bill Owens didn’t poll 50 percent.

Which is true: he polled 49 percent. So take that, Mr. Owens!

This congressional district has been something of an anomaly ever since Republican John M. McHugh vacated the seat when he was appointed Secretary of the Army by President Barack Obama. Bill Owens stepped in to win the special election after the Republicans split their votes between Dede Scozzafava and Doug Hoffman, then won the regular election over Mr. Doheny in another fractured three-way race. So Matt Doheny can’t relinquish the bromide that this is a Republican district and a Republican should be elected.

But apparently, this district has ideas of its own. In the confidence department, the likely voters who responded to the poll expressed greater confidence in Mr. Owens than in Mr. Doheny. And there is no home-field advantage for Mr. Doheny: in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, the incumbent led 60 percent to 32 percent. This is Mr. Doheny’s “home” area — although I say that with advisement. And people like Mr. Owens better. In fact, 37 percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of the Democrat, and 51 percent overall said they like the man. Mr. Doheny’s favorable ranking captured just 32 percent overall. So a higher percentage of Republicans like Mr. Owens than voters overall like his opponent. This cannot bode well for the challenger.

What are the greatest negatives for Mr. Doheny? There seems to be a certain view of him as a frat boy — his photographed escapade in Washington with a woman or women not his fiancee, whether fairly represented or not, probably left a sour taste in some people’s mouths. And I think there is a contingent of voters who view him as something of a carpetbagger; while he boasts of his financial triumphs while working on Wall Street and suggests they somehow qualify him for Congress, a lot of people look at that as “Uh-oh, here comes that high-falutin’ city boy!”

And finally, as a colleague suggested to me when we were talking about just how long Mr. Doheny has been running for this position, he has become the Harold Stassen of the north country, always seeking office with an indefatigable ardor that must be wearying for him, because it’s sure making a lot of us voters tired of it. Familiarity oft does breed contempt — or at least some lesser negative feeling.

It’s still a while until the election, and Matt Doheny can still prevail. But the first poll makes one wonder just how he’s going to pull this rabbit out of the hat. Mr. Owens, in his three years in Washington, has learned the power of the incumbency and he at last is wielding it well. It’s going to take an unfathomable misstep on Owens’s part to fritter away his lead, and that means that Mr. Doheny can’t sit back and wait for it, he has to go out and turn voters’ views around. Just how he can do that is a question I can’t get my arms around, and I don’t think his campaign can, either.

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