The end of the legislative session, which occurred on Monday evening, is the unofficial first day of the 2006 campaign season. From here on out, you’ll start to see a lot more electioneering (I’m not even sure what that word means; I just like to say it) and campaigning on a public scale.

You’ll also start to see a lot more poll results, which are useful if you know how to look at them but not entirely relevant on the face of things. Let’s take a look at the latest poll from Rasmussen Reports on the Colorado governor’s race:

In the latest Rasmussen Reports survey of the race for Colorado Governor, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter (D) and GOP Representative Bob Beauprez remain essentially tied. Beauprez now “leads” Ritter 39% to 37%, well within the survey’s 4.5 percentage point margin of sampling error. In late March, Ritter edged out Beauprez 41% to 40%.

Beauprez is the favorite to win the Republican nomination over former University of Denver President Marc Holtzman (R). Holtzman trails Ritter by five percentage points, 41% to 36%.

Ritter is viewed favorably by 52% of likely voters, unfavorably by 25%. Beauprez is viewed favorably by 48%, unfavorably by 31%. Holtzman is viewed favorably by just 35% (a five-point drop since late March) and unfavorably by 33%, with 32% Not Sure what to think of him.

Among Republicans, Beauprez is viewed favorably by 69%, Holzman by 51%…

…The rolling average of the last three Rasmussen Reports polls shows Ritter leading Beauprez by 2 percentage points, 39% to 37%. These figures confirm the tightness of the race at this time. With seven months to go until Election Day and more roughly 20% of Colorado voters undecided, this looks to be a wide open campaign. Ritter leads Holtzman in the three-poll average by eight percentage points, 41% to 33%.

So Bob Beauprez is now the new favorite to win the 2006 governor’s race, right? Well, no, actually. At least not if you are basing that assumption on this poll. It goes without saying (although I’ll say it here anyway) that polls this far out from the election aren’t very indicative of who is likely to win, in large part because the overwhelming majority of voters are paying zero attention to the governor’s race at this point. If you put all three candidates in a police lineup and brought in 10 random Coloradoans to look at them, most of them probably couldn’t identify any of the three candidates — much less what they were running for. It’s just too early.

On a wider scale, then, it doesn’t mean much to say that Beauprez leads Ritter by two percentage points but Ritter leads Holtzman by 5 percentage points. This is especially true when you consider that the margin of error is 4.5 percent In other words, as Rasmussen points out, the race is a complete toss-up at this stage.

But if you look closer at the numbers, there are some useful tidbits of information to be gleaned. For one thing, it’s worth taking into account the last two polls Rasmussen conducted and how they represent Ritter’s candidacy. Ritter’s numbers have declined or remained stagnant since he held a seven-point lead over Beauprez at the end of February. This should be something of a concern for Ritter; he doesn’t have a primary opponent, which means nobody is taking negative shots at him, yet he isn’t polling better month after month. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Holtzman or Beauprez level out because of the negative campaigning that affects each candidate, but Ritter should be able to pull slightly further ahead in the meantime. The concern here is that Ritter could really plunge once Republicans pick a candidate and start going negative against him; if people aren’t thrilled with Ritter when nobody is trying to make him look bad, what happens when the attacks start up?

Perhaps most important in polls like this is to look at favorable vs. unfavorable numbers. They break down like this:

Bill Ritter: 52% favorable/25% unfavorable
Bob Beauprez: 48% favorable/31% unfavorable
Marc Holtzman: 35% favorable/33% unfavorable/32% not sure what to think of him

Favorable and unfavorable numbers are good indicators of how much work a candidate needs to do. It’s better to be unknown than to have unfavorable numbers at this point in a race, for the simple reason that it’s easier to make yourself known than it is to change a negative opinion. Holtzman, then, is still in decent shape because he has such a large block of people who aren’t sure what to think – he can still move up. More worrisome, however, is the five-point drop Holtzman suffered in the last month in unfavorable ratings, which could indicate that the more people get to know him, the less they like him. Among Republicans, Beauprez has a 69 percent favorability compared to 51 percent for Holtzman, which is also, obviously, not good news for the latter.

Ritter’s numbers can be somewhat worrisome here as well, especially when combined with his overall 37 percent polling number. Only 25 percent of respondents view Ritter unfavorably, yet he doesn’t poll better than 37 percent in a head-to-head matchup. In other words, people like Ritter, but they don’t really like him; he’s like the guy who is friends with all of the pretty girls but never gets to date them. I think you’re great, but I only like you as a friend.

So, keep an eye out for more polls in the weeks and months to come, but make sure to take a closer look when you see them.