Berkley moves closer to Obama as campaigns heat up

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Although U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley didn't win a spot on the stage at the Democratic National Convention, she won the right Wednesday night to announce Nevada's 43 delegates for President Barack Obama's nomination for re-election.

The minor role demonstrated Berkley's full embrace of the president when she needs an Obama lift to boost her chances of defeating Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller in a close Senate race overshadowed by her ethics investigation.

"The great state of Nevada is known as the Battle Born state for a reason," Berkley said from the convention floor at 18 minutes after midnight local time. "We're fighters, and we will continue to fight alongside Barack Obama," who she said is fighting for the middle class.

Earlier, Berkley said calling out the Nevada delegate count would be "the biggest thrill of all."

More than the thrill, Berkley is counting on Obama's coattails and the accompanying Democratic voter turnout bump that having the president on the Nov. 6 ticket brings.

Some Nevada delegates were a bit disappointed that Berkley didn't get to take the stage and speak to a national TV audience, a privilege accorded to the party stars. But activists were pleased that Democrats were showing a united front for Obama.

"I would have liked for her to have a bigger role," said Chris Miller, chairman of the Clark County Democratic Party and a delegate. "As a Nevadan, you're disappointed."

Miller said Democrats were confident that Berkley will run stronger by staying close to Obama.

"Democrats always run better when they run as Democrats," Miller said. "When you stay true to your values, it energizes Democratic voters."

Republicans are counting on turning out their base voters for Heller and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Nevada's battleground, too. Independents could swing a close election, but most voters appear to have made up their minds with just 60 days to go, so turnout will matter most.

Heller did not attend the Republican National Convention last week in Tampa, Fla., staying home to campaign. He wasn't offered a speaking role either at the GOP convention.

At this point, Democrats have a voter registration advantage of nearly 56,000 statewide over Republicans. Four years ago, by Election Day the edge was a whopping 100,000, which helped Obama win Nevada.

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said that if Democrats come close to their voter turnout performance four years ago, Berkley could benefit greatly from the Obama effect.

"Berkley stands a better chance linked to Obama's fortune than standing on her own," Herzik said.

Berkley began to cozy up to Obama over the summer after the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into whether she had a conflict of interest in advocating on kidney health care issues. Her husband is a kidney doctor with dialysis centers in Southern Nevada and could have benefited from her support of high Medicare reimbursement rates for kidney procedures.

She and Heller helped save the kidney transplant center at University Medical Center, where her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, has a contract. She did not disclose his interest at the time.

The last time Obama campaigned in Nevada, Berkley attended the August event. She said she hoped to campaign with him again, although she didn't know whether the president would come to Nevada to campaign for her as he did for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in 2010.

"I think we will be together on many occasions," Berkley said.

Her attitude is in contrast to the early days of the Senate race when she appeared to avoid talking about her support for the $787 billion stimulus and Obama's health care law, which has voters divided. After the Supreme Court upheld the law, she advocated its benefits more often.

Berkley arrived in Charlotte on Tuesday afternoon and met with fellow Senate candidates. But she did not appear on stage Tuesday night with female members of the House, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who were promoting their re-election bids.

A photo with Pelosi on stage could hurt and not help Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman whose California colleague is a reviled figure among Republicans.

Among U.S. Senate candidates Wednesday night, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was the star speaker, giving her a high-profile platform in her close race with U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican who won a special election for the late Ted Kennedy's seat.

The Berkley-Heller and Warren-Brown contests are two of the most competitive Senate races in the country. Their outcomes could determine whether Democrats maintain control of the Senate, now led by Reid, who has put his political machine behind Berkley.

Berkley's ethics cloud might have been highlighted if Democrats had given her a spotlight role in the convention, but party leaders said it was a matter of limited time and limited speakers.

"Shelley Berkley's race is one of the most important races in the county," said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee and a Florida congresswoman. "The fact that she doesn't have a speaking role doesn't diminish that."

Wasserman Schultz, who has campaigned for Berkley, told Nevada's delegates at a breakfast Wednesday that she is sure the congresswoman will win the Senate race. Berkley stopped by the breakfast and met the delegates for a private lunch.

Sandy Eddy, a Nevada delegate, said she thinks the Senate race "is going to be tight," but she doesn't believe the ethics issue will decide the outcome.

"I personally don't care if there's an elected (official) who fights for something that's good for Nevada and it happens to help her husband," Eddy said, referring to the successful effort to keep the UMC kidney center open. "In general, I think people don't care."

Most recent polls have shown Heller edging out Berkley, although the race remains a toss-up. Eddy, like the Berkley campaign, dismisses the surveys as mostly flawed.

"I don't listen to polls," Eddy said.

Berkley said she is busy campaigning and will return to the trail today, missing Obama's nighttime acceptance speech. Still, she told reporters she wanted to attend at least part of the convention to demonstrate her strong backing for the president's agenda.

"I think it was important to be here to give my full support to the president," Berkley said.

She said that if she could have spoken at the convention, she would have backed Obama's efforts to help the middle class, create jobs, and protect Medicare and Social Security.

Heller has voted twice for GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget plan that would reform Medicare by turning it into a private insurance federal subsidy for future retirees younger than 55 now. The latest proposal would give retirees an option to pick the new or old Medicare program.

Heller and Republicans say they're trying to prevent Medicare from going bankrupt to preserve it for future generations.

Berkley has made Medicare the heart of her campaign against Heller. He in turn has accused Berkley and Democrats of gutting Medicare by reducing spending by $700 billion over 10 years as part of Obama's health care reform.

"You don't fix it by killing it," Berkley said of GOP Medicare plans.

Fact-check organizations have said Democrats are stretching the truth when they say Republicans want to kill the program. Republicans, meanwhile, have proposed similar $700 billion spending cuts to Medicare to trim costs.

Berkley said she also supports Obama's protection of women's rights both for equal pay and access to birth control. "The idea that this is even an issue in this country is shocking to me," Berkley said.

Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal. com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.