Locked in a dead heat, both U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and Sharron Angle picked up support in the past two weeks, according to a poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow that shows Nevada voters sharply divided on whether Reid's Senate seniority is too valuable to lose.
More than half of those surveyed, 51 percent, said the Senate majority leader's influence is not too valuable to give up, while 45 percent said Nevada can't afford to lose his clout, said the survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. Another 4 percent weren't sure.
Overall, Reid edged out Angle 46 percent to 44 percent. It's the best showing so far for both candidates in Mason-Dixon matchups as more voters picked sides between the Democratic incumbent and the Tea Party-backed Republican with early voting nine weeks away.
Two weeks ago, a Mason-Dixon poll showed Reid at 43 percent and Angle at 42 percent.
Only 5 percent of voters were undecided, 2 percent picked "other" candidates and 3 percent chose "none of these" candidates, a protest category that's shrinking, defying predictions of some pundits.
The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points, making the race a statistical tie. The new telephone poll was taken Monday through Wednesday of 625 registered and regular Nevada voters statewide.
Pollster Brad Coker said the clout question could be key to the outcome of the tight race as the four-term senator and his backers contend Nevada can't afford to lose Reid's power, an argument that may win some support even from those who don't like the unpopular incumbent in an anti-incumbent election year.
A majority of voters say they are willing to sacrifice the Senate majority leader's power. But, for now, fewer seem ready to try a freshman senator who has vowed to block the Democratic Party agenda and who argues Reid hasn't done enough to revive Nevada's worst-in-the-nation economy and record high jobless and home foreclosure rates.
"More people are saying we don't need him there" in Washington, Coker said, adding it tracks with Reid's high negatives. "That's the kind of number that may foreshadow what the vote might look like when we get to the end. I think this race is more a referendum on Harry Reid than about Sharron Angle."
The clout question breaks down largely by party lines with 76 percent of Democrats saying Nevada needs to return Reid to the Senate and 83 percent of Republicans saying his power isn't worth it. Among swing nonpartisan voters, 54 percent said Reid's position isn't too valuable and 43 percent disagree.
The Reid campaign has been both talking up his accomplishments and spending millions of dollars on ads to keep the focus on Angle, portraying the conservative as outside the mainstream for wanting to cut spending by closing U.S. agencies such as the education and energy departments, for example.
As a result, both Reid and Angle are now highly unpopular, although Nevada voters' views of the Democratic incumbent have hardened with less room for change, Coker said.
Reid is seen unfavorably by 51 percent and favorably by 40 percent with another 9 percent having a neutral view of him, the survey found. In comparison, Angle is viewed unfavorably by 45 percent and favorably by 37 percent with 17 percent holding a neutral opinion. Another 1 percent don't know her.
Reid has had some success in painting Angle as "too extreme" to vote for with 41 percent of those polled agreeing with that assessment. But Reid, also, is seen as "too extreme" by 36 percent as Republicans accuse Democrats of engineering a big government takeover of society. Another 11 percent say neither candidate is too extreme, 6 percent say both are and 6 percent weren't sure.
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, said Angle "has more ability to increase her favorability simply because she's not as well known." But the Reid campaign can still drive up her negatives as it did early on by blasting her in attack ads that went unanswered for weeks after she won the June 8 GOP primary over more established and moderate Republicans.
Since then, Angle has made a comeback after she went on the air with her own TV ads and hired a top-flight communications shop that's now hitting back at Reid and pushing what her campaign believes is a winning focus: "The economy, the economy, the economy," as Angle often says.
To counter that, Reid has pointed to his efforts to save jobs, including by encouraging banks to keep funding the $8.5 billion CityCenter in Las Vegas that directly employs 8,000 workers.
Nearly half of Nevada voters, or 48 percent, said Reid's intervention "was appropriate," while 36 percent said it was inappropriate, according to the Mason-Dixon poll. Another 16 percent weren't sure.
Angle, on the other hand, said she wouldn't have made calls to save CityCenter, arguing private projects should succeed or fail on their own. Like most other conservative Republicans, she also opposes the $787 billion stimulus and bailouts of the banking and auto industries.
Angle also has vowed to join GOP efforts to repeal the health care law that was Reid's centerpiece achievement for President Barack Obama last year. Here she's with a majority of Nevada voters, or 53 percent, who oppose the law while only 39 percent support it, according to the poll. That compares to 52-38 percent two weeks ago, suggesting Reid's efforts to sell the reform hasn't worked.
Reid campaign spokesman Jon Summers said the poll shows that "the more Nevadans learn about Sharron Angle, the less they like her and her extreme agenda to kill Social Security, abolish the Department of Education, and leave unemployed Nevadans to fend for themselves."
"There is absolutely no doubt that Nevada is better off with the majority leader of the Senate than someone new who would be 100th in seniority," he added. "Senator Reid will continue to leverage his leadership position to create jobs, keep people in their homes and get our economy back on track."
Angle said she wants to save Social Security by restoring $2.5 trillion to its trust fund, and not kill it, although in the spring she had called for "transitioning out" of the program. She also says she wants to let young workers opt out of Social Security and open personal accounts.
Angle's new communication director Jarrod Agen said the survey "is a good sign" for the former Reno assemblywoman because she's gaining voters despite Reid's continuous attacks. And he said the findings about Reid's clout show that most Nevadans aren't happy with how he's used it.
"Even though people say he's a powerful member of the Senate, his policies are just out of sync with Nevadans," Agen said. "They want somebody who's going to be their voice in the Senate, not somebody who's going to be Barack Obama's voice in the Senate."
Herzik, like most analysts, said he expects the Reid-Angle race to remain close through Election Day on Nov. 2. He said no one factor will likely drive voters to choose between two candidates at near opposite poles of the political spectrum.
"It will be the accumulative weight of all of these factors," Herzik said. "Health care doesn't break for Reid, but CityCenter does. He's the majority leader -- and that's a draw, unless you think he's on the wrong side of things. Will any one of these decide the election? No, not in a close race."
Voters also were asked about religion with Reid, a staunch Mormon, and Angle, a Southern Baptist, vying for conservative churchgoers who generally side with Republicans but who also have backed Reid over the years given his anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage views.
The Mason-Dixon survey showed that 9 percent of Nevada voters identified themselves as Mormon or LDS, the acronym for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Another 23 percent said they were "born-again" or evangelical Christians.
Only 12 percent of voters said it was "very important" or "somewhat important" if a candidate "has a different religious background than you" when deciding whether to vote for him or her. It was slightly higher for Mormons (18 percent) and white evangelical Christians (17 percent) than others.
Herzik has long predicted a Reid victory, saying if he wins "it will be ugly." But he added that Reid's fate also rests on the national mood. It's now against the Democratic Party in power and incumbents as the economy suffers and the Tea Party movement tests its anti-establishment influence in Nevada and across the nation.
Herzik pointed to 1980 when Ronald Reagan pulled off a presidential upset and in 1994 when Republicans took back power in both the House and Senate as stunning examples of sweeps.
"A week to 10 days out from Election Day, that's where you want to see if this breaks against incumbents," he said. "Angle has to stop Reid's movement and she now seems to be finding some feet under her to do that. Harry Reid wants to prevent any Angle momentum or surge."
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