By Phil Hirschkorn & Elaine Quijano
AMHERST, N.Y. - Democratic congressional candidate Kathy Hochul considered herself an underdog when she began her race for the House of Representatives seat vacated by Christopher Lee, the married congressman who resigned after being caught placing shirtless personal ads on Craigslist earlier this year.
The race was expected to be an easy one for Republican Jane Corwin. Instead it's turned into a $9 million campaign and a proxy for the national debate over the House Republican budget, complete with a Tea Party twist.
The latest poll of New York's Republican-leaning 26th District, which stretches from the Buffalo suburbs to Rochester, showed Hochul with a slight edge over Corwin and Independent Jack Davis.
The Sienna College survey of likely voters released Saturday found 42 percent preferred Hochul and 38 percent were for Corwin, while 12 percent supported Davis, who is running on the state's Tea Party ballot line.
"The priorities that I have are aligned with the people of this district, regardless of party affiliation," Hochul told CBS News in an interview. "I am not a hyper-partisan person."
The 52-year-old Hochul, a lawyer, was once a legislative aide to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and is now the Erie County Clerk.
In a race that may be turning on the issue of reforming Medicare, Hochul believes some voters may be experiencing buyer's remorse following the Republican sweep into controlling the House of Representatives.
"I really think that people who put their faith in the Republicans last November have seen what's been happening since January," Hochul said, referring to the latest House Budget authored by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan.
"Their priorities - which are encapsulated in that Ryan budget - are not in line with the Republicans. Independents and Democrats in my district," Hochul said.
Her steady attack on Republicans' Medicare reform is that, for Americans currently under 55, it would replace the government-run health insurance program for citizens over 65 with a voucher system. "End Medicare as we know it, and convert a guaranteed health insurance plan to a program that's 'You're on your own with insurance companies. Here's an $8,000 voucher; you're on your own, good luck,'" Hochul said.
In a district where 40 percent of registered voters are over 55 years old, her message has gained traction.
The Sienna College poll found likely voters in the 26th District ranked it their top issue, just ahead of jobs and cutting the federal budget deficit.
Republican candidate Jane Corwin, 47, a member of the New York State Assembly, has bristled at the Medicare critique, and denies she is for vouchers.
"That is a complete lie," Corwin told CBS News in an interview. "She [Hochul] doesn't offer a plan of her own. She is content to sit back and just kick the can down the road and let Medicare go bankrupt in 13 years."
Republicans rely on the annual Medicare trustees' report, released on May 13, which stated that the hospital insurance trust fund could be insolvent in 2024, five years earlier than previously predicted.
"I'm trying to preserve Medicare," said Corwin. "I am supporting a plan that will make sure that seniors today receive the benefits they expect, but that the plan is around for the future. If it's not a perfect plan, and I'm sure it isn't, I'm open to modifying it or changing or improving."
Besides the Medicare debate, Corwin's expected road to Washington has encountered another major roadblock: Jack Davis.
Davis, 78, a Marine veteran and manufacturer of heating elements for industrial furnaces, has spent $3 million running on the Tea Party line. He vehemently attacks free trade policies as hurting the nation's manufacturing base, and is against proposed agreements with Korea, Panama and Colombia.
"Believe me, it's not going to get better until we change our policies," Davis told CBS News in an interview. "Working men and women in this country know free trade is a job killer."