By Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The high-profile U.S. Senate race in Iowa is a dead heat, with Democratic Representative Bruce Braley and Republican state Senator Joni Ernst each garnering the support of 45 percent of likely voters, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Braley and Ernst have been locked in a tight race that has seen an influx of outside money and appearances from prominent national figures on both sides of the aisle.
Republicans, who need to pick up six seats to take control of the Senate from Democrats, see the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin as one they could move to their column.
Ernst, a Tea Party-backed Iraq war veteran who grew up on a farm, has a slight edge over Braley, an attorney and an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Congress in favorability ratings, the poll showed. Ernst has 50 percent favorability and unfavorability ratings, compared to Braley's 48 percent favorability and 52 percent unfavorability.
"There's not a lot of elections where I say it's genuinely too close to call, but because of the lack of incumbency and because of the closeness of the polls, I genuinely find it too close to call," said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark.
More than one-third of respondents said they had already voted, taking advantage of early voting provisions ahead of Election Day on Nov. 4. The Braley-Ernst race is one of about 10 Senate races around the country that polls are showing as closely matched.
Overall, Iowa voters seem happy with the current state of affairs: Iowa governor Terry Branstad leads his challenger, Democrat Jack Hatch, by a 57 percent to 34 percent margin.
And more than 60 percent of voters said Iowa is headed in the right direction, compared to just 28 percent who believe the country as a whole is moving in the right direction.
Voters in the state have a dim view of President Barack Obama, broadly reflecting a wider national picture: just 41 percent of Iowans approve of his handling of his job, compared to 58 percent who disapprove.
ROMNEY, CLINTON LEAD 2016 FIELDS
As happens at this stage in every presidential election cycle, likely 2016 White House aspirants have already descended in droves upon Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucus in presidential election years.
Unsuccessful 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney is the most popular choice for 2016 among Iowa Republicans and independents, with 17 percent support, even though he says he does not plan to run again.
He is closely followed by his former vice-presidential nominee, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, at 13 percent, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, with 12 percent.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida governor Jeb Bush each got 10 percent, and five other Republicans got at least 5 percent, reflecting the likely fractured nature of the Republican primary season.
On the Democratic side, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite, garnering 60 percent of support from Democrats and independents, compared to 17 percent for her closest potential challenger, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Clinton says she will decide whether or not to run in early 2015.
Vice President Joe Biden was next, with just 4 percent of the vote.
The online poll of 1,129 likely voters in Iowa, conducted between October 23 and 29, had a confidence interval - similar to a margin of error - of 3.3 points.
(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by Frances Kerry)