CHEYENNE -- A new Casper Star-Tribune poll finds that with about three weeks left before primary election day, both gubernatorial races have frontrunners but no clear leader.
The poll, conducted last week, found that Rita Meyer and Matt Mead lead a crowded Republican field for the Aug. 17 gubernatorial primary election.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Leslie Petersen has an appreciable but tenuous lead over Pete Gosar.
The winners will face off in November to succeed outgoing Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
Meyer, the current state auditor, and Mead, a former U.S. attorney, polled 27 percent and 24 percent, respectively, among likely Republican voters. Meyer also led all seven Republican candidates in name recognition (91 percent) and favorability rating (50 percent).
House Speaker Colin Simpson polled 17 percent, while former legislator and state Department of Agriculture Director Ron Micheli followed with 12 percent.
Alan Kousoulos, a Wyoming Department of Transportation shop supervisor from Cody, polled 2 percent. Two other candidates, John Self of Sheridan and Tom Ubben of Laramie, didn't register any support.
Despite leading the poll, Meyer certainly isn't the clear favorite: Her 3 percent lead over Mead is within the poll's 5 percent margin of error.
Brad Coker of Washington D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., which conducted the survey, said while Meyer and Mead are the clear frontrunners, there's still plenty of time left to campaign.
"With almost three weeks still in the primary at this point, you're looking at a long way out," Coker said.
Meyer vs. Mead
Several Wyoming voters who were polled said they liked both Meyer and Mead -- and likely wouldn't make a final decision until they enter the voting booth.
Sandra Poe, a registered Republican from Casper, said she liked Meyer because of her experience in state government.
"I like the fact that she's associated with the Freudenthals, and her background in government and finance," said Poe, who's retired. "I like her views on where the state should go."
Others said they liked Mead, but for a variety of sometimes contradictory reasons.
"He's very conservative," said John Sjogren, a registered Republican from Rawlins.
But Charley Smith, a registered Republican from Lander, said he likes Mead for the opposite reason.
"Mead is a moderate and I hope he would be protective of Wyoming's values," Smith said.
Meyer said she was happy to hear the poll results, adding they squared with her "gut instinct" of how the race is going.
But, she said, the poll numbers are only "a shot in a piece of time."
"I always say it's light years between now and election day," Meyer said. "We'll simply continue to work hard ... and meet as many people as possible."
Mead said he was "very pleased" to see the poll results.
"It's sort of what we've been feeling, is that we're in a statistical dead heat with Rita," he said. "I think we've got to just keep working as hard as we have been and reaching out to try to earn the support of undecided voters."
Simpson, Micheli confident
Coming in third was House Speaker Colin Simpson, who polled 17 percent.
Coker said "it may not be a good sign" that Simpson is trailing despite having name recognition as the son of former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, R-Wyo.
"I like Simpson simply because I hope he'd be like his dad," Smith said.
Sheri Lay, a state employee and registered Republican from Wheatland, held a different view.
"He's not his father, and everybody knows that," she said. "I don't think that he's as strong as his father either -- I don't think he can be strong enough where we need him to be strong enough."
Simpson said he wasn't surprised to hear the results, saying the outcome was "largely reflective" of how long each candidate has been airing television and radio ads. Simpson only began airing TV ads on Thursday.
"Those other candidates have been up for a week or two or more. And I'm sure we'll be doing great with our advertising," Simpson said. "And we will win -- we'll change those numbers."
While Micheli received support from 12 percent, he also received the highest unfavorable rating of any Republican gubernatorial candidate -- 13 percent.
"I think he's too conservative," said Smith of Lander. "I can see him as being one of these demagogue Republicans, being like the rest that I think are taking the country the wrong direction."
Also, while one of Micheli's main campaign themes is that state government spending has gotten out of control, most Wyoming voters appear not to share that concern.
Only 13 percent of voters said Gov. Dave Freudenthal and the Wyoming Legislature haven't cut enough from the state budget; by contrast, 57 percent said state spending has been "adequately and fairly cut."
Sixty percent also said they felt that things in Wyoming are on the right track.
One of Micheli's main tasks now appears to be to introduce himself to more Wyoming voters -- 30 percent of likely Republican voters didn't know who he was, by far the least name recognition of any of the four main GOP candidates.
That's likely because Micheli didn't begin airing television ads until just a couple weeks ago, Coker said.
Micheli's campaign manager, Bill Cubin, also voiced faith in a media release Friday that the new TV and radio ad campaign would win over voters to Micheli's side during the next three weeks.
"This election is very volatile and I doubt that most people have completely settled on a candidate right now," Cubin said in the statement. "We are going to continue to work hard to the very end and expect to surprise people on election day."
The Democratic primary also remains wide open, with Petersen, who stepped down as state Democratic chairwoman in May to enter the race, holding an 8 percent lead over Gosar, a pilot and former University of Wyoming football star.
Three other Democratic candidates -- Chris Zachary and Rex Wilde of Cheyenne and Al Hamburg of Torrington -- polled only marginal numbers.
The main statistic in the Democratic race, however, is that 45 percent of Democratic voters remain undecided about who to vote for on primary election day.
Many Democrats polled said they still didn't know much about any of the candidates in the race.
"I haven't heard of any of them," said registered Democrat Lois Hughes of Glendo. The Democrats, she said. "don't ever really have anybody qualified to run, for quite a few years."
Coker said with less than three weeks left before the primary, the Democratic race will come down to money and organization to win over those undecided voters.
"There's a lot of time left," said Coker. "I don't think Petersen can sit on her lead, and Gosar's still there -- he's still got a shot."
Petersen said she feels the same way, especially since many voters on all sides are only now starting to pay attention to the race.
"Gosar's a really nice guy, and I'm not taking him for granted at all," she said. "I'm happy that I have a small lead at this point, but elections are never over 'til they're over."
Gosar shared that sentiment.
"I'd like to be on the other end of those numbers, but it all matters August 17," Gosar said. "We'll do a little hustling here in the next three weeks and see what it all means in the end."
Whoever wins the governor's race in November will succeed a very popular governor in Freudenthal.
Freudenthal, a Democrat, had a 77 percent approval rating -- one of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country, Coker said. Even 71 percent of Republicans rated his job performance as "excellent" or "good."
Such high poll numbers coming at the end of Freudenthal's second term show how enduring his popularity is, Coker said.
"Those numbers are real," Coker said. "You get elected, everybody loves you. But usually by the second term, if you're not really doing the job, they start to figure it out, because things start falling around you."
Retired rancher Charles Springer of Sheridan, a registered Republican, had only good things to say about Freudenthal.
"He's the best Republican governor we've had. He's a good man," Springer said. "I think he's done as good as anybody would've done under the circumstances, and he seems to have a good head on him. I just like the way he works."
But in a year where the political winds have turned against Democrats around the country, even many Democrats in Wyoming are skeptical that their party will be able to hold onto the governor's mansion again this year.
"We've had a Democratic governor for two terms," said Charles Vitt, a registered Democrat from Pinedale. "I don't think we'll have another one for awhile."
Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at (307) 632-1244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about Wyoming politics and government at http:tribtown.trib.com/wypolitics
How the poll was done
The Casper Star-Tribune poll was conducted July 26-28 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. of Washington, D.C. A total of 625 registered Wyoming voters were interviewed statewide by telephone. All said they vote regularly in state elections.
There were 382 Republicans (61 percent), 172 Democrats (28 percent) and 71 Independents (11 percent). Pollsters interviewed 319 women, or 51 percent of the sample, and 306 men, or 49 percent.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The margin of error is higher for any subgroup, such as a gender sampling.
The survey also included an over-sampling of 400 likely Democratic primary voters and 400 likely Republican primary voters. All indicated they were likely to vote in their respective Aug. 17 primary elections. Only the questions relative to the primary races were asked of these additional voters. The margin of error for each primary voter sample is plus or minus 5 percent.
Those interviewed were selected by random variation of the last four digits of telephone numbers. A cross-section of exchanges was used to ensure an accurate reflection of the state. Quotas were assigned to reflect voter turnout by county.
Here is the breakdown:
* Northwest Wyoming: 150 interviews in Big Horn, Washakie, Hot Springs, Fremont, Sublette, Teton and Park counties.
* Northeast Wyoming: 120 interviews in Converse, Niobrara, Weston, Crook, Campbell, Johnson and Sheridan counties.
* Southern Wyoming: 170 interviews in Goshen, Platte, Albany, Carbon, Sweetwater, Uinta and Lincoln counties.
* Natrona County: 80 interviews.
* Laramie County: 105 interviews.