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North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan is all but tied with Republican challenger Thom Tillis in a midterm showdown likely to help determine control of the Senate, a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll finds.

The Tar Heel State survey, which launches a series looking at key Senate and gubernatorial contests across the country this fall, shows an electorate that is feeling a bit better about the economy but decidedly negative toward politics. Voters are inclined to have an unfavorable view of each candidate and overwhelmingly disapprove of the legislative bodies in which they serve.

Hagan leads Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina General Assembly, by 45%-43%, an edge within the poll's margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh could hold the balance: His supporters, 5% overall, disproportionately identify Tillis as their second choice.

The impact of the hard-fought campaign already has left some scars.

Frazier Manning, a 75-year-old retiree from Hope Mills who was among those surveyed, is voting for Tillis in large part because he's dismayed by Hagan, especially for her support of the Affordable Care Act. "She voted for it, but she won't respond to me about how she's going to fix it," he says. "I think he'll do more to repeal it and replace it."

Frank DeMase, a 51-year-old engineer from High Point, is voting for Hagan in large part because he's suspicious of Tillis and other Republicans. "They're all for big business," he says. "They want to put more money in their rich buddies' pockets than the middle class or the lower class."

North Carolina has been a Republican-leaning state but one Democrats increasingly see as competitive. Hagan, elected in 2008, is one of the GOP's prime targets in its effort to gain six seats and with it control of the Senate. After Tuesday's primary in Alaska, where Dan Sullivan won the Republican nomination to challenge Sen. Mark Begich, the most closely watched Senate races now are set. Sullivan and other establishment-backed contenders defeated Tea Party primary opponents, a development expected to boost GOP prospects in November.

The USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll of 500 likely voters, interviewed by landline and cellphone, was taken Saturday through Tuesday. Other recent statewide surveys also have shown a tight race. Tillis had a lead of 1.7 points in four surveys over the past month tracked by realclearpolitics.com.

The president may have run his last race, but the findings make it clear how much he looms over the midterm election. A third of those surveyed say they think of their vote for Congress as a vote for Obama. Nearly as many, 30%, see it as a vote against Obama. Just a third say he's not a factor in their vote.

If the election were held today, 46% would vote for the Republican congressional candidate, 45% the Democrat.

On Obama's signature legislation, 49% call the 2010 Affordable Care Act "generally bad" for North Carolina; 42% say it is "generally good."

"Tillis not only has an opponent with a low job approval, he benefits from President Obama and Obamacare showing negative ratings," says David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. "But Hagan has a Democratic party-registration advantage, higher name recognition and a Libertarian candidate on the ballot who is siphoning votes away from Tillis."

Both Senate candidates have a higher unfavorable than favorable ratings. Hagan has a lower job-approval rating (41%) than Obama does (45%).

"North Carolina is going to be a central battleground in the national parties' efforts to control the Senate in the 114th Congress," says Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University. "There are estimates of $35 million spent (by the campaigns and outside groups) and it's just the middle of August." That onslaught of overwhelmingly negative TV ads "fits with the sour mood North Carolina is in."

The contest reflects the nation's political divides. Hagan holds a double-digit lead among women and minority voters. Tillis leads by double digits among men and whites. Those who identify jobs and education as their top concerns overwhelmingly support Hagan; those most concerned about the budget and national security overwhelmingly back Tillis.

By more than 2-1, 58%-25%, North Carolinians say the issue of which party controls Congress is a factor in their vote.

Charlotte area political professor, Dr. Michael Bitzer, believes the election will come down to base turnout. He believes both canadates will draw attention to the other's negatives.

"So, I think it's really much more of, 'Who can I tie to a more unpopular person?'" Bitzer said.

Bitzer believes Hagan will use the General Assembly to attack Tillis, and Tillis will attack Hagan, tying her to the president.

An early test of voter sentiment in the 2016 presidential race displays Hillary Rodham Clinton's dominance of the Democratic field and nostalgia for 2012 nominee Mitt Romney in the diffuse Republican field.

Eighteen percent of Republicans choose former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, 11% former Florida governor Jeb Bush and 7% New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. A third of those surveyed are undecided. But when Romney is added to the list, he leads the GOP field with 39% of the vote, followed by Huckabee at 14% and Bush at 10%. (Romney has dismissed suggestions he might run again.)

Among Democrats, Clinton is picked by 57% of the Democrats surveyed, trailed by Vice President Biden at 15% and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 9%.

"If Hillary's running, I'm voting for her, and my husband, too, and my brother," says Betty Gordy, 74, a retired waitress and casino dealer from Warren County — even though she voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and is undecided about whom to support in this year's Senate race. "She was for the schools; she was for your health issues ... and it was not a scam what she was doing. She was serious."

Barack Obama carried North Carolina over Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008, but he lost the state in 2012 against Romney.

On some North Carolina issues, those surveyed:

• Oppose fracking by 51%-32%. A majority say the state General Assembly should not permit the controversial process to extract natural gas using hydraulic fracturing.

• Split 41%-39% against a proposed state constitutional amendment that would allow criminal defendants to waive the right to a trial by jury and instead be tried by a judge.

• Hold Gov. Pat McCrory responsible, 45%-34%, for delays in responding to a toxic coal ash spill from a Duke Energy power plant into the Dan River in February. Seven percent of those surveyed say the incident in Rockingham County affected their drinking water.

By 44%-35%, those surveyed trust government more than private corporations to prevent chemical spills and other industrial accidents. Eleven percent volunteered that they trust neither one.

Follow @susanpage on Twitter.

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