U.S. Sen. Dean Heller has expanded his lead over Democratic challenger Rep. Shelley Berkley, according to a new poll that shows the Republican ahead 47 percent to 39 percent in the Senate race.
Heller might be benefiting from greater GOP enthusiasm after Mitt Romney's winning debate performance against President Barack Obama last week, according to the pollster for SurveyUSA, which conducted the poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow.
Nevada voters also had a chance to see Heller and Berkley in their first debate in Reno two weeks ago, and they'll get an opportunity again tonight in Las Vegas during the second of three scheduled face-offs.
"The Romney tide is floating the down-ticket boats," pollster Jay Leve said. "So what we're seeing right now is a slight coattail effect for Heller's campaign. He may have picked up two or three points. And there's no coattail effect for Berkley. She's not benefiting from Obama's strength" among traditional Democrats.
As an example, 92 percent of those who said they plan to vote for Romney said they also would vote for Heller. But of those who said they would vote for Obama, only 76 percent back Berkley.
Heller won support of 88 percent of Republicans surveyed while Berkley won 73 percent of the Democrats.
With early voting starting in nine days, on Oct. 20, the poll showed Heller is more popular among likely voters than Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman who has high negative ratings. Heller also is seen as more ethical and truthful than Berkley, who is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee.
About 38 percent of those surveyed said they have a favorable opinion of Heller compared with 35 percent who have an unfavorable view of the appointed senator. That's a six-point improvement from seven weeks ago when a SurveyUSA poll showed 32 percent had a favorable opinion of him and 35 percent unfavorable.
In comparison, Berkley is seen favorably by 28 percent and unfavorably by 48 percent of those surveyed. That's a more negative showing than in the August poll, which had her at 29 percent to 43 percent.
Overall, the August poll showed Heller leading Berkley 44-39, so he has improved by several points since the summer and since their debate, according to the new survey, while she hasn't shown upward movement. Nearly every other recent public poll also shows Heller leading Berkley.
Berkley has been targeted by negative TV ads from the Heller campaign and outside GOP groups that question her ethics. The House ethics panel in July launched an investigation of Berkley's advocacy on kidney issues that may have benefited her physician husband. Berkley said she had only Nevadans' health care in mind.
In the new survey, 42 percent said Heller is "more ethical," while 29 percent said Berkley. The rest weren't sure. Asked who had run "a more truthful campaign," 41 percent said Heller and 30 percent Berkley. The rest weren't sure.
Heller and Berkley have portrayed one another as running untruthful campaigns, and in their first debate they accused each other of lying about everything from Medicare policy to unemployed Nevadans.
Although Berkley has portrayed herself as a fighter for the middle class who would protect Medicare, the survey suggests her campaign message might not be breaking through to voters. About 43 percent said Heller "will do more for the middle class," while 38 percent said Berkley. Asked who has the better plan for Medicare, Heller edged out Berkley, 41 percent to 37 percent. He was winning the issue among nonpartisans, 44 percent to 28 percent.
Heller has voted twice for a GOP plan to reform Medicare for future retirees younger than 55 into a voucherlike private insurance reimbursement plan, a move Berkley and Democrats say would "end Medicare as we know it."
While the Senate race is highly partisan, Heller appears to be building a healthy lead over Berkley among independent voters who could make the difference in the Nov. 6 election. Nonpartisans favor Heller 50 percent to 27 percent over Berkley in the new survey, compared with 45-35 seven weeks ago in the SurveyUSA poll.
The survey showed Heller gaining among a wide array of groups, even women who traditionally have strongly backed Berkley. Heller was edging Berkley among women, 43-41, in the poll, whereas seven weeks ago he lagged 37-43. He also was holding a lead among Hispanics, 43-41, although other polls have shown Berkley beating Heller handily among Latino voters.
A recent Latinos Decisions poll showed Berkley leading Heller, 58-26, among Nevada Hispanics.
David Damore, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political science professor involved in the Latino Decisions survey, questioned SurveyUSA's results. He said that Berkley isn't doing as well as Obama among Nevada Hispanics, but that she and other Democrats are clearly leading their GOP opponents.
"Berkley's got her work cut out to solidify the base," Damore said, referring to traditional Democratic voters. "But I haven't seen any evidence to support that she's losing Latinos."
Heller has taken tough anti-illegal immigration stances, while Berkley has promoted legislation to provide young, undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. About 45 percent polled - mostly Republicans and independents - said Heller would be "stronger on immigration," compared with 26 percent for Berkley.
Damore and others question whether Berkley really trails Heller in Clark County, where most of the state's population and Hispanics live. The poll showed Heller edging her out, 43-40, in Clark County, where she is widely known and has represented Las Vegas since 1999 in Congress. In Washoe County, the survey showed Heller up 52-39 over Berkley and in the rest of GOP-leaning Nevada up 61-28.
Heller was a congressman representing all of Nevada outside Clark County before he was appointed last year to replace U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who resigned amid a lobbying scandal and revelations of an affair.
Damore said the growing Democratic voter registration advantage over Republicans in Clark County of more than 120,000 should give both Obama and Berkley a big edge over their GOP opponents in Southern Nevada.
The telephone survey of 1,222 likely voters was conduced Oct. 3 through Monday, during the week after the first Romney-Obama debate. It used both landlines and cellphones and English and Spanish speakers. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
About 40 percent of those surveyed were Democrats, 33 percent Republicans and 25 percent independents. That roughly matches the party breakdown in Nevada except for nonpartisans, who are about one-fifth of the electorate.
The gender breakdown of the poll was 52 percent male and 48 percent female. Leve, the pollster, said the breakdown of registered voters in Nevada is 51 percent male and 49 percent female. He said men surveyed expressed a "higher certainty of voting," so the sample was filtered to get the 52-48 ratio.
The Berkley campaign was highly critical of the SurveyUSA poll and noted that two years ago, public polling missed the mark in the race between U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican Sharron Angle. Most pre-election polls, including a Mason-Dixon poll for the Review-Journal, showed Angle up four points over Reid. But the Senate majority leader won re-election by nearly 6 percentage points.
Asked about the new poll, Berkley campaign communications director Xochitl Hinojosa said, "Another day, another absurdly flawed poll from the Las Vegas Review-Journal."
"Clearly the paper is not interested in giving an accurate assessment of the state of the race," Hinojosa added in a statement. "One would have thought they would have learned their lesson after being off by a breathtaking 10 points in the 2010 Senate race. Guess not."
Chandler Smith, a spokeswoman for the Heller campaign, said the candidate is focused on the campaign ahead.
"Dean Heller will continue to travel this state working for every vote," Smith said in a statement. "He looks forward to seeing more of Congresswoman Berkley on the campaign trail in the next few weeks, and is particularly interested to hear how her votes for the Wall Street bailout, for the trillion dollar stimulus, and to cut Medicare by $1 trillion are helping Nevada."
Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@review journal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.