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SALT LAKE CITY — After dropping millions of dollars, exchanging testy debate barbs and attacking each other week after week on TV, Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson and Republican Mia Love appear evenly matched in almost every way as they scrap for votes two days before Tuesday's election.
Love slipped a little in the latest Deseret News/KSL poll but maintains a slight edge over Matheson in Utah's volatile 4th Congressional District.
Pollster Dan Jones and Associates found that 42 percent of registered voters in the district say they would definitely vote for Love, while 38 percent say they would definitely vote for Matheson.
When those leaning toward one candidate or the other are factored in, Love leads Matheson 48 percent to 43 percent. Only 6 percent are undecided, leaving few voters to fight over in the waning hours.
In late September, Jones showed Love leading Matheson by six points, which reflected a 21-point swing since she trailed by double digits in June.
Jones expects a long night on Election Day.
"But it seems to me, in the last couple of weeks, Mia Love has had the momentum," he said, attributing that to the "Mitt Romney surge."
The pollster couldn't say whether it would carry through Tuesday.
"In that race, it could switch on a dime," Jones said.
Love found the poll results encouraging.
"Every credible poll has us ahead, which means the truth is resonating," she said. "I've had a lot of things thrown at me. I'm sure that people will continue to try to throw as much as they possibly can at me. Utahns are savvy; they're smart. They know what rings true."
Matheson said there are a lot of polls out there showing different results.
"At the end of the day, I think this is going to be a real close race. I've always said that and always prepared for it. I have a ground game second to none. I have great confidence, that that's what's going to push me over at the end," he said.
Jones surveyed 414 registered voters in the 4th District from Oct. 26 to Nov. 1. The poll has a plus or minus 4.8 percent margin of error. Two-thirds of respondents say they're likely to vote, while a third have already voted.
The six-term congressman hasn't trailed in the polls this late in any of his previous elections, though his 2010 challenger closed the gap and nearly caught him at the end.
But the 52-year-old congressman has proven to be an astute campaigner who appeals to independents and moderate Republicans.
According to the poll, Matheson pulls 59 percent of voters who identify themselves as independent, while Love gets 29 percent.
"But he's got to get it higher than that to offset the tremendous amount of Republicans who are voting," Jones said.
Matheson has fended off five challengers — two of them narrowly — since wresting the 2nd District seat from a Republican 12 years ago. He jumped to the new 4th District this year after the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature carved up his district when it redrew congressional boundaries last fall.
A Love victory would quell Utah's only Democratic voice in Congress, giving the state an all-GOP congressional delegation for the first time since Matheson took office in 2001.
Jones said Salt Lake County, where the poll shows Matheson up 48-44, also will be a determining factor in the outcome.
"He needs at least 55 percent in Salt Lake County," he said.
The Matheson-Love matchup is one of the hottest and most closely watched congressional races in the country. It's also the most expensive U.S. House contest in Utah history, with total spending reaching $10 million.
At least two dozen PACs, superPACs and other groups have poured $5.6 million into the race for and against both Matheson and Love, according to opensecrets.org, which tracks Federal Election Commission financial reports. The campaigns and their supporters inundated the airwaves with one of the nastiest TV ad wars ever in Utah politics.
Those backing Love shelled out $2.9 million, while those supporting Matheson put down $2.7 million. All but about $1 million of the total between the two came in the form of negative or attack ads.
The candidates themselves also built substantial war chests. Matheson raised $2.1 million, while Love raised $2 million, much of it coming after her well-received speech at the Republican National Convention in late August.
Love stitched her campaign to the long coattails of Romney, Utah's favorite adopted son. The GOP presidential nominee cut an TV ad for her last week in which he directly appeals to viewers to vote for her.
Matheson has tried to keep his distance from President Obama while touting himself as an independent voice. In one TV ad, a local mayor says he's voting for Romney and Matheson.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Love would be the first black Republican woman elected to Congress should she win Tuesday.
Love, 36, entered the race as a relatively unknown mayor of Saratoga Springs. Despite Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff referring to her as a "novelty," she upset two former state lawmakers to overwhelmingly win the GOP nomination at the state convention.
As the new darling of the Utah Republican Party, Love quickly made a name for herself on the national political stage, especially with conservative bloggers and news outlets. A parade of GOP stars, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House Speaker John Boehner and eventual vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, made their way to Utah to raise money for her.
"The voters have to decide: Do they want a new face — dynamic, attractive, energetic — or do they want someone who has been doing the the job for 12 years?" said University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said it would be "historic" for Love be the first black GOP woman serve in the U.S. House.
"We welcome Mia's voice," the Virginia Republican said. "She is uniquely placed to be a leader in Congress."
America is changing and the Republican Party knows that if it doesn't diversify it will be a losing party, Chambless said.
But a Love win, he said, begs a couple of questions.
"We'll ask ourselves, does this mean the Republican Party is broadening its base? Is it the party of the big tent that Ronald Reagan talked about or is it anecdotal and insignificant and really parochial in its significance?" Chambless said.