NASHVILLE - Democrat Eric Stewart's campaign says its new poll shows his race with Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais is now a "dead heat" following revelations that the physician urged a patient whom he once dated to get an abortion a dozen years ago.
Pollster Andrew Myers said the survey of 400 likely voters shows Jasper congressman leading state Sen. Stewart of Winchester by 49-45 percent. That's a "dead heat," he said because it falls within the poll's 4.9 percent margin of error.
"These data say it is an extremely competitive race today and Eric is very much in the game," Myers added during a news conference Wednesday with Tennessee-based reporters.
The poll was conducted Sunday and Monday.
DesJarlais initially dismissed a transcript that surfaced of the 2000 conversation with the unnamed woman as "old news," alluding to 2010 attacks launched by then-U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., over DesJarlais' messy divorce, finalized in 2001.
But in a Times Free Press interview last week, the congressman acknowledged the transcript of the recorded conversation is genuine. But he said he was trying to get her to acknowledge she wasn't actually pregnant. He also wanted her to get an ultrasound, the transcript shows.
DesJarlais said there was no pregnancy and no abortion. He opposes abortion rights.
Pollster Myers said DesJarlais' standing among women who participated in the 4th Congressional District survey is in "free fall."
He said that was probably due to the transcript.
"What else would explain it?" he said.
And since the Stewart campaign's last poll in June, those who had an unfavorable opinion of the congressman doubled, he noted.
The poll's release coincided with Wednesday's start of early voting across Tennessee.
DesJarlais' campaign later issued a statement calling Stewart "an unapologetic supporter of President Obama, Obamacare and the devastating liberal policies that have put our economy into a tailspin and cost jobs here in Tennessee."
The state said "it is only fitting that he would use Barack Obama's polling firm. Our internal polling shows support is strong and the fact that Eric Stewart refuses to release his poll in its entirety shows he is using the same misleading tactics that have characterized his campaign."
DesJarlais' campaign statement notes "our internal polling shows support is strong and the fact that Eric Stewart refuses to release his poll in its entirety shows he is using the same misleading tactics that have characterized his campaign."
The Stewart campaign declined to release the full poll to the Times Free Press. Myers said full results in such polls are rarely released because "strategic" questions are posed. He questioned why the DesJarlais campaign isn't releasing their full results.
"There's reason they're not releasing that," Myers said.
The DesJarlais campaign did not respond to a later inquiry about releasing their own full poll.
Myers, meanwhile, said that while he has done polling for independent expenditure groups, including questions about the presidential race, he is not "Obama's pollster."
Ken Blake is founder and editor of Middle Tennessee State University's biennial statewide poll, a nonpartisan survey.
"Given that sample size, a split as large as 51 percent/42 percent still would have been a 'dead heat' using the typical tolerable probability maximum of 5 percent," he said.
He also noted the margin of error in subgroups would be higher since there are fewer people involved.
In response to additional questions, Myers said by email that "the margin of error increases for subgroups and is always the case." But he said "400 is a more than adequate sample though, and frankly it is a pretty common sample size used in congressional district polling."
Myers said the poll utilized random polling with a "cluster sample methodology" that controls for geographic distribution across the sprawling 15-county district. It stretches from part of Bradley County in the east into Middle Tennessee and Rutherford County (Murfreesboro).
He said Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is running strong in the district.
Stewart, meanwhile, weighed in with a statement saying Tennesseans "deserve to have a Congressman ... represent them that has not caused the type of national embarrassment that we've seen from Congressman DesJarlais."
"He has been an embarrassment to elected officials, to the state of Tennessee, and to the medical profession. He's violated his oath of marriage, the oath he took as a doctor, and the trust of the voters," he added.
This week, the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington announced it had filed a complaint with Tennessee's Board of Medical Examiners, citing a state law that prohibits doctors from having sexual contact with patients.
DesJarlais has said he treated the woman briefly for an ankle injury. He said the brief relationship came while he was legally separated from his then wife and both had agreed they could see other people.