With less than three weeks to go before Election Day, Linda Lingle‘s U.S. Senate campaign has released a memo from its pollster saying the race against Mazie Hirono “is a very close race.”

“In our nightly tracking the race is very close, we’re down by 3 or 4 points,” Jan R. van Lohuizen of Voter / Consumer Research said in the memo dated Wednesday. “This is a significant gain from our track in late September. The Hirono campaign is probably seeing the same trend, since they’re now attacking on Medicare.”

The numbers are sharply different than a Civil Beat Poll conducted in late September that show the Democrat Hirono with a 16 percentage point lead over the Republican. The Hirono campaign released internal numbers in early October that were very similar with the Civil Beat Poll.

The Lingle survey also bucks recent analysis by national political experts who say the Hawaii Senate race is strongly leaning Democrat.

But Lingle’s team believes the dynamic has changed, perhaps in part because of televised debates between Hirono and Lingle.

“As we’ve been saying, our race is a statistical dead-heat,” Lenny Klompus, Lingle’s deputy campaign manager and communications director, said in a statement. “With 20 days to go, and early walk-in voting beginning Monday, Linda Lingle is perfectly positioned to win this race against Mazie Hirono — just as she’s done before.”

The Hirono camp has a far different take.

“What the Lingle campaign describes as a ‘poll memo’ is just an incomplete paragraph that raises more questions than it answers,” Hirono campaign manager Betsy Lin said in a statement. “It’s odd Linda Lingle is willing to publicly declare, ‘Mitt Romney would be a better president for Hawaii’ than President Obama — yet refuses to publicly back up her reputed ‘poll results’ with any actual proof.”

Lin said the Hirono campaign’s internal polling suggests she will emerge victorious Nov. 6, though Lin did not provide any new numbers.

Game-Changer, Or Hail Mary?

It is not uncommon for campaigns to release internal poll results that show their candidate doing well. In fact, it’s rare for a campaign to publicly reveal numbers showing their candidate in trouble.

Then again, the presidential debates have shown just how quickly an election can change, with Republican Mitt Romney enjoying a 4 percentage point to 6 percentage point gain against President Obama following the first debate.

“There’s No Question, Romney Changed the Game” was the title of Charlie Cook’s Oct. 15 analysis of the debate. The Cook Political Report is one of the most respected groups that examine trend data.

Pollsters are already crunching the numbers on the second presidential debate, held Tuesday, in which many reports say Obama staged a strong comeback.

Locally, debates haven’t usually been game-changers.

But when Lingle defeated Hirono in the 2002 governor’s race by 4.5 percentage points, Lingle’s strong performance at a debate sponsored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs shortly before the election was seen by many as helping her campaign.

Polls In Dispute

The new Lingle survey was conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Voter / Consumer Research Oct. 9-16. It has a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

“We trail by 4 percent, Lingle 43, Hirono 47,” wrote van Lohuizen. “We also lead on all but one diagnostic question, including ‘effective in getting things done’ and ‘willingness to work across party lines.'”

Those points, of course, are Lingle’s primary selling points for her candidacy.

At least one local political expert suggested the debates may not have helped Lingle as much as she is saying.

“Although she’s done very well in the debates, I don’t think she is within the margin of error at this point, because there was too much of a lead to begin with,” said John Hart, a professor and chair of the communications department at Hawaii Pacific University.

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