By MARK PAZNIOKAS
U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, and Democrat Jim Himes faced off Thursday night in a televised debate amid signs that they have the only tight race in Connecticut.
A new poll showed Himes, who trailed by 10 percentage points in one survey last month, 3 percentage points ahead of Shays, a 21-year incumbent trying to hang on as New England's only House Republican.
In a poll conducted for Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, on Monday and Tuesday, SurveyUSA found Himes leading, 48 percent to 45 percent - and Barack Obama opening a 22-percentage point lead over John McCain in the Fairfield County district.
With a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, the poll places the contest where every handicapper had predicted it would be in October: a tossup, with Himes aided by a strong Democratic trend.
Even Shays, the state co-chairman of McCain's campaign, predicted Thursday night that Obama likely will be the next president.
Shays, who says his own polling had showed him with a small lead, did not dispute that he is in a tight race. He pantomimed a punch in the gut and said of the Roll Call survey, "Was it a little of that? Yeah."
Himes played down the poll.
"It was gratifying - for two seconds," Himes said. "I reminded myself I'm in the fight of my life."
As Himes' stock appeared on the rise, the influential Cook Report downgraded the chances that Republican challenger David Cappiello will unseat freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy in the 5th District.
Cook changed its assessment of the 5th from "likely Democratic" to "solid Democratic," one of 25 races in the country seen as tilting Democratic.
"For House Republicans, already dark days are getting darker," Cook said.
Against that backdrop, Shays took to the stage of a theater at Fairfield University on Thursday night, intent on burnishing his reputation as an atypical politician, a Republican who breaks with his party and shuns negative campaigning.
"In my 21 years in Congress and my 13 years in the state House, I've never run a negative campaign," Shays said. "I've been tempted."
Himes, 42, a former Goldman Sachs vice president now working as a developer of nonprofit housing, opened by setting himself apart from the political world.
"I am not a politician," Himes said, then added that he is also no partisan. "I'm not going to Washington to score points for the Democrats. I have zero interest in that."
An early question a college Republican posed about the abuse of rent-control laws by U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a contributor to Himes, sparked heckling by a liberal blogger and another spectator.
Himes was asked whether he would favor an investigation of Rangel. He replied, "The answer to that is an energetic yes."
"I came all the way down here to hear this?" yelled Edward Anderson, a blogger from New Haven, as he left the auditorium. Another man shouted, "I want to hear about the economy."
Shays minimized the relevance of Rangel's contributions to Himes.
"That's not a big deal because this is a very honest man," Shays said of Himes, but he added, "I would have given back the money."
In a move that Shays called "just stupid," the National Republican Congressional Committee tried Thursday to link Himes, whom it described as a "top recruit," to embattled Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney of Florida, who is facing an investigation on allegations of sexual and financial improprieties.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had arranged a joint fundraiser in New York for Mahoney and Himes, one of several shared fundraisers the party set up across the country for various candidates, said a spokeswoman, Jennifer Crider.
The fundraiser was not held, so the Democratic committee closed a joint fundraising or "victory fund" account in early October, Crider said.
Shays said he told the Republican committee not to run any ads in his race: "I pleaded with them, 'Let me sink or swim on my own.'"