Jeff Flake

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Az, speaks at a news conference in Washington on Sept. 8, 2011, in support of a proposal to open thousands of acres of land to copper mining in Superior. The proposed land swap is part of a job-creation package supported by the Western Caucus of Republican lawmakers.

A new poll shows that anyone who hopes to beat Jeff Flake in next year's race for the U.S. Senate is going to have to hit the campaign trail -- and soon.

Public Policy Polling found that Flake, currently a member of Congress representing the Mesa area, is the only one of four contenders to replace Jon Kyl who is known well enough so that at least half the 500 people polled have some opinion of him. But even with Flake serving his sixth term, more than a third of the members of his own Republican party said they had no particular opinion of him.

Still, that's better than others who want the seat.

Wil Cardon, another Republican who hopes to go to Washington, found a 13 percent approval rating among party members, 9 percent negative -- and everyone else with no particular opinion.

On the Democratic side, pollsters found 63 percent of members of that party without any thoughts about former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona. And former party chief Don Bivens found three quarters of those questioned with no opinion.

The race has attracted attention because it is rare for a Senate seat to open up. The last change was 17 years ago when Kyl was elected.

So far, Kyl has stayed out of the GOP primary race and made no endorsement.

At this point, the survey shows Flake would beat either Democratic contender. But his margin over Carmona is just 4 points -- within the survey's 4.4 percentage point margin of error -- as Carmona, who served in the Bush administration, has a bit of support from Republicans.

That, however, could simply reflect some anti-Flake sentiment within his own party.

Flake opposed last year's approval of SB 1070 by state lawmakers. But repeated surveys have shown the legislation aimed at illegal immigrants has popular support in the state.

Since that time, Flake has backtracked, saying he now believes the first priority has to be securing the border rather than comprehensive immigration reform. That sharp turn may be paying off: The survey shows Flake's overall positive ratings have increased somewhat since the last poll in May.

If Cardon ends up being the GOP nominee, Carmona's chances of getting elected improve, but only slightly, with the Democrat still trailing by three points. Bivens, by contrast, comes nowhere close to defeating either Flake or Cardon in a head-to-head matchup.

The survey was conducted Nov. 17-20.

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