(CNN) – A new poll released Saturday shows the Democratic candidate now has a slight lead – a four point advantage among likely voters – over the Republican in a special congressional election in Western New York that has attracted the national spotlight.
Democrats are hoping to frame Tuesday’s election in NY-26 as the first test of their strategy to make the House GOP budget that includes a plan to overhaul Medicare a political liability for Republicans in the 2012 elections.
The Siena College poll indicates Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul is now ahead with 42 percent in the poll, and the Republican, State Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, with 38 percent. The third party candidate, Jack Davis, the Tea Party candidate, has 12 percent. The lead for Hochul is within the poll’s 4-point margin of error.
When Republican Congressman Chris Lee resigned in February after a gossip website posted a shirtless picture and emails from the married father seeking a romantic meeting with a woman, few in this district – and even in Washington – expected much of a contest to replace him with another Republican. But fast forward a couple of months, and the race is being closely watched as a political barometer of the issues voters are focused on this year.
The sprawling Western New York district is reliably red – voting for Republicans in the last three presidential elections. But the Siena poll shows voters in the district say the most important issue to them is Medicare, over the budget deficit and jobs.
Immediately after the House passed the House Republican budget in April that includes their proposal to dramatically change Medicare, House Democrats promised to make that vote an issue in the 2012 elections. The GOP plan converts the health care program for seniors from one that directly covers costs for care into one that provides subsidies to seniors to purchase health care coverage through private plans. It keeps the current system for those 55 and older, but for those 55 and younger, the structure of the Medicare program would significantly change.
Even though Corwin didn't personally vote for the proposal, Hochul's central message over the past several weeks is that her Republican opponent supports the plan. In the second and final debate between the Democrat and the Republican earlier this week, it seemed as though Hochul was running against the author of the GOP Medicare plan, House Republican Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, instead of Corwin.
Hochul told CNN in an interview, "Jane Corwin has 100 percent embraced the Paul Ryan budget. Even when Republicans in Washington are running away from it – she's been asked again and again, and she continues to support it."
Corwin defended her support of the GOP plan, telling CNN, "Medicare certainly is an important issue to our seniors, and that's why I'm working so hard for a program that will protect Medicare and also make sure the program is around for future generations."
While she said she supported the Ryan plan, Corwin also noted, "there are clearly some problems with it as well," and pledged she would push for legislation to cover the so-called "donut hole" in coverage for prescription drug costs that would still occur under the plan.
The Republican candidate insisted that while the Republican-led House was working to tackle entitlement reforms so future seniors will have benefits, the Democrats are simply ignoring the major challenge to instead play politics with the issue.
"Isn't that such the career politician thing to do, kick the can down the road?" Corwin said at the debate.
Davis, the third party candidate, acknowledged Medicare is dominating the conversation in the race, but he insists the real issue voters here care about is the economy.
"The way to solve the debt problem is to put people back to work. If everybody was working, we wouldn't have had the recession, we wouldn't have lost the homes," Davis told CNN. The business owner repeated his message, saying, "All we have to do to solve all of America's problems is to put Americans back to work."
In a sign of what's at stake politically, outside groups and national party committees are pouring money into the race, cluttering up the local airwaves with attack ads. According to the Sunlight Foundation, up to now, these groups have spent close to $2 million so far on the special election. In addition, Corwin and Davis have spent millions of their own money on the race.
Both sides are mobilizing their field operations, with national party committees busing in volunteers to knock on doors in the final weekend.
Last week House Speaker John Boehner traveled to the district to raise money for Corwin and New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer campaigned with Hochul.
This weekend the state's other Democratic Senator, Kristin Gillibrand, is stumping for the Democratic candidate.
Nearby state parties are making calls into the district urging supporters to get to the polls for the election on Tuesday. Republicans are concerned that Davis, who is a former Democrat, but was able to get enough signatures to run on the ballot as the Tea Party candidate, is drawing conservative support from Corwin.
Earlier this week two Florida Republicans with ties to the Tea Party – Rep. Allen West and Sen. Marco Rubio – recorded robo-calls supporting Corwin.
Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, national Democrats are already proclaiming victory for forcing the GOP to spend resources on a race in a district that they should have been able to keep in their column. But while Democrats were quick to tout their victories in three special elections before the 2010 midterm cycle, they went on to lose control of the House.
–CNN Congressional Correspondent Kate Bolduan contributed to this story