Pollster to Berkley: Heller vulnerable on China

U.S. Senate hopeful Shelley Berkley could have a winning issue on her hands by continuing to pound China over its currency manipulation, according to her advisers based on their polling.

A memo to Berkley from pollster Mark Mellman provides an answer to why the Las Vegas Democratic congresswoman has been all over the issue this week as a China bill is being debated in the Senate.

The Mellman message: Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is "wildly out of step" on the topic. He voted against House legislation last September that called for a tougher U.S. response to China, and Democrats believe he provided a new opening on Monday when he voted against a similar bill in the Senate.

Democratic polling in the state shows overwhelming support for penalizing China and anyone else manipulating exchange rates to gain unfair trade advantage, according to a memo dated Wednesday that started circulating this afternoon.

According to the polling memo, only 34 percent agreed with Heller that congressional pressure on China could result in a trade war that would hurt Nevada's ongoing efforts to attract Chinese investments and to lure more visitors to the casinos.

The issue is being framed around jobs, with supporters of a China crackdown citing a study by the liberal Economic Policy Institute that 2.8 million jobs have been displaced or lost due to a U.S. trade imbalance with its Far Eastern trading partner.

"Shelley's strong, principled demand that China stop cheating, to save Nevada jobs, is a huge political winner and we should use every opportunity to draw this contrast," the memo says.

"It should remain a central component of our message from now through Election Day. It will benefit us and hurt Heller. Badly."

In response, Heller campaign adviser Mike Slanker said in an email: "Sad but not shocking that someone like Congresswoman Berkley would use her political pollster to drive her supposed legislative agenda."

"What's worse is she is using taxpayer money, taxpayer-funded staff time, and her official office to wage a political campaign," Slanker wrote. "Sadly not shocking coming from Congresswoman Berkley who doesn't think the rules apply to her."

Heller said China has not responded adequately in the past to U.S. warnings, and he suggested joining with other countries to pressure the Chinese.

The Senate bill "isn't going anywhere," Heller said Wednesday, referring to an anticipated logjam in the House. "Everybody knows we're just throwing out this bone, which I think doesn't send a good message."

Berkley began speaking out Tuesday on a bill that seeks to pressure the Obama administration to place tariffs on imports from China. Heller on Monday evening was one of only 19 senators to side against the bill in a preliminary vote. Other dissenters included three Democrats: Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

On Wednesday, Berkley convened a telephone meeting with reporters to further lambaste Heller. Today she courted further attention by sending Heller a letter asking him to reconsider his vote.

The Senate took another test vote this morning, moving the bill forward again, 62-38. A final vote was expected later today or on Friday.

In the morning vote, 48 Democrats, 12 Republicans and the Senate's two independents voted for the bill, while 35 Republicans and the same three Democrats voted against it.

At a press conference today, President Barack Obama said China has been hurting the United States through its monetary policies that effectively make Chinese products cheaper here and U.S. products more expensive over there.

But Obama stopped short of endorsing the bill, saying he was uncertain it would be effective.

"I don't want a situation where we're just passing laws that are symbolic, knowing that they're probably not going to be upheld by the World Trade Organization," Obama said.

Berkley is being urged to keep up the pressure.

Heller's votes on China "may just be the equivalent of Sharron Angle saying it's not her responsibility to create jobs," the Mellman memo said.

Those remarks by the 2010 Republican Senate candidate in Nevada were seized successfully by incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and worked into his message that Angle was too extreme to represent the state.