OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A month ago, Republican Senate candidate Tom Coburn was riding the momentum of an impressive primary victory in his general election race with Democrat Brad Carson.
Coburn was up several percentage points over Carson in the polls taken after his primary win over two well-known and well-funded candidates. But after a few controversial statements by Coburn, the latest polls show the Muskogee doctor either neck-and-neck with Carson or slightly behind the Democrat.
The two men are running for the Senate post Republican Don Nickles is leaving after 24 years. The contest, which has become increasingly divisive, could be pivotal in the battle for control of the Senate.
Coburn's off-the-cuff remarks, such as saying ``crapheads in Oklahoma City'' have slowed the state's progress, have provided fodder for television advertising boosting Carson's candidacy.
Coburn also has spent much of the past two weeks defending himself against a woman's allegations that he sterilized her without her consent 14 years ago.
He vehemently denies the charge, which was the basis of an old lawsuit that was eventually dropped. Coburn acknowledges that the episode has done harm to his efforts to get his message out.
Since Coburn's slide in the polls, a consultant has been brought in from Florida, a new communications director has been added and national Republican figures have come to the state to extol the Oklahoma candidate's virtues.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, was in Oklahoma for two fund-raising events on Sept. 17 and Vice President Dick Cheney was in Tulsa on Friday.
While in Tulsa, Cheney stressed the importance of getting a Republican in Oklahoma's U.S. Senate seat.
``This is not just about a seat in Oklahoma,'' Cheney said at a fund-raiser where about 450 Coburn supporters paid $500 for a seat. ``It's about control of the United States Senate.''
But Coburn may have to battle back in the final weeks of his campaign.
Coburn adviser Michael Schwartz, who was out of state when the sterilization story broke, returned from Washington and declared his candidate had been ``slimed.''
Schwartz, who was replaced by Jason Miller, who served as campaign manager for former Illinois senatorial candidate Jack Ryan, said Carson's gains in the polls, however, were mostly due to Democrats outspending his candidate in television ads ``by between a three-to-one and four-to-one margin.''
One Carson ad that has touched a nerve with Republicans features an animated jack-in-the-box with Coburn's face. The word ``crapheads'' is shown in a cartoon bubble when Coburn's face pops the first time.
The word ``liberal'' is shown when his face pops up the last time, and the narrator says, ``Now he's calling Brad Carson a liberal.''
The ad goes on to highlight the National Rifle Association's support of Carson.
The Republican National Committee has asked Carson to stop running the spot because it also shows Carson shaking hands with President Bush and a letter from Bush praising Carson for supporting his tax cuts.
Charles Spies, RNC lawyer, said the ad leads voters to think the president backs Carson over Coburn.
Kristofer Eisenla, Carson spokesman, said Carson has supported the GOP president on many occasions and if elected to the Senate ``that won't be the last letter the president will be sending him.''
The Carson ad was in response to an ad by Coburn which shows moving pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that come together to form a picture of Coburn's Democratic opponent.
It says Carson ``may just be the most liberal politician in all of Oklahoma.''
Coburn's efforts to pin the ``liberal'' tag on Carson is seen as an effort to sway swing voters, including some who normally would support President Bush's re-election.
Although Democrats still hold an edge in voter registration in Oklahoma, the state hasn't voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since Texan Lyndon Johnson won in 1964.
Keith Gaddie, University of Oklahoma political science professor, said an analysis of one poll shows that Carson is winning the battle for swing voters and is getting one out of four of voters who support Bush's re-election.
Coburn started his campaign by stressing his conservative credentials and his battles against what he considered as ``pork'' barrel spending during his three terms in Congress.
Several residents of Coburn's district held a rally on the Capitol steps Friday, calling on the ex-congressman to sign a pledge to vote to ensure Oklahoma gets its fair share of federal funding if he is elected to the Senate.
The group wore T-shirts stating that ``Tom Coburn went to Congress and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.''
They complained that Coburn did little to secure federal funds for education, agriculture and highways.
Despite his recent setbacks, John Hart, Coburn spokesman, said the campaign remains ``very confident.''
``We're convinced that if voters have the opportunity to compare the voting records and ideologies of both candidates, we will prevail,'' he said.
He said Carson's record shows he is ``significantly to the left of Oklahoma voters.''
Carson is winding up his second term as representative of the 2nd Congressional District. He replaced Coburn, who served for three terms and did not seek re-election.