By BRIAN AMARAL
With five days to go, the race between Democratic Rep. William L. Owens and Republican Matthew A. Doheny is a dead heat.
Mr. Owens leads Mr. Doheny 44 percent to 43 percent among likely voters in the 21st Congressional District, according to a poll from the Siena College Research Institute released this morning. Nine percent are undecided. Mr. Owenss lead was within the margin of sampling error of 3.9 percent. In September, Mr. Owens led Mr. Doheny 49 percent to 36 percent.
This has become the proverbial barn burner, said Steven A. Greenberg, a spokesman for the Siena poll.
Mr. Doheny was able to close the gap in part because of a pronounced swing among independents, and a major shift in attitudes among those in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties. In September, independents favored Mr. Owens by 30 points. In the most recent poll, conducted among 629 likely voters in the 21st Congressional District on Oct. 29 and 30, independents favored Mr. Doheny by 2 percentage points.
The poll could dramatically shift the narrative in Tuesdays race. Most professional prognosticators believe Mr. Owens is the slight favorite, with one, the Cook Political Report, saying Mr. Owens was likely to win. The Doheny campaign has worked to convince reporters and the electorate at large that the race is a toss-up.
But even the polls Mr. Doheny has paid for didnt show him as close as the Siena poll does. In early October, a Doheny campaign poll had him trailing Mr. Owens by five points, which his supporters touted as good news. His campaign released a poll earlier this week that didnt include the most important percentage: the preference of likely voters who were contacted.
Instead, it said Mr. Doheny trailed Mr. Owens, 42 percent to 40 percent, among those most likely to vote, a subcategory that was a more favorable number to the idea of a tight election.
The poll showed Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties are the elections battleground. Mr. Owens led the region 47 percent to 44 percent in this mornings Siena poll. He had led 60 percent to 32 percent here in September. Mr. Doheny lives in Watertown while Mr. Owens resides in Plattsburgh.
Mr. Owens led Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Herkimer and Hamilton counties 53 percent to 37 percent.
Mr. Doheny, meanwhile, led in Fulton, Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties 46 percent to 36 percent. The region has the highest population of the three areas in the congressional district.
After the previous Siena poll was released showing Mr. Doheny trailing by 28 points in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, his campaign shifted its strategy and started paying more attention to the area where he grew up and now lives.
The candidates will now sprint to the finish. Mr. Doheny is touring Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties today while Mr. Owens will soon embark on a 12-county tour of the district.
Of the voters who had a favored candidate, 90 percent said they were fairly or absolutely certain they would stand by their man.
The result will take many people, including the Doheny campaign, by surprise.
The night before the results came out, senior figures in the Doheny campaign were counseling reporters not to put too much stock in the poll that was coming out the next morning. Instead, they said, pay more attention to the fact that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is still buying television ads in the congressional district.
It seems to me that this race is really tight, said Mr. Greenberg, the Siena pollster. Its going to come down to who can get those few undecided voters into their camp, and which campaign does a better job getting their voters out to the polls.