Despite his underdog status, Sen. Harry Reid declared Monday he's confident he'll win re-election, and he welcomed independent candidates -- who could splinter the vote and spoil any GOP effort to retire the most powerful senator in the most watched race in the nation.
"They have a right to file," Reid said of third-party contenders, including a Las Vegas man running under the Tea Party of Nevada banner, though members of the movement call him a "Tea Party fraud."
Reid's comments came after he filed to run for election to a fifth term, launching what could be his last campaign unless he can boost his support from potential voters above the 40 percent level in pre-election polls. The Republican Party is targeting the Senate majority leader's Democratic seat for a GOP takeover, with the party out of power aiming to ride an anti-Washington wave to victory.
Asked if he thought he could win, Reid said: "I wouldn't be running if I didn't''
Asked what his map to victory looked like, the senator said he would "work hard and recognize the issues facing the people of this state" as Nevada suffers record unemployment and foreclosures. He pointed to several job creation bills he's pushing through Congress and $100 million in fresh funds to help Nevadans keep their houses, part of a program for hardest-hit states that President Barack Obama announced when he visited Las Vegas last month to support Reid's re-election campaign.
But Reid also touted the latest poll in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which shows him for the first time possibly winning the general election against the GOP nominee and any Tea Party contender, though the survey showed him losing face-to-face match ups with his top three GOP rivals.
The poll for a three-way race "shows me winning the election," Reid said with a grin.
"You have to understand that this election is going to mean more than Democrats and Republicans. We have the third-party candidates," Reid told reporters after he filed with the secretary of state's office. "We have the American Independent Party. We have the Tea Party now."
At the age of 70, Reid acknowledged he's in the political fight of his career, though he's survived tough contests before, including a near loss in 1998 that required a recount.
"I'm independent, just like Nevada," Reid said, recycling the theme of his first Senate campaign in 1986, perhaps in response to critics' complaints that he has forgotten his roots. "The people of Nevada know me. I'm not going to change who I am. I'm the same person today that I used to be."
The Mason-Dixon poll commissioned by the Review-Journal in late February showed Reid would get 36 percent of the vote, the GOP nominee 32 percent and the Tea Party candidate 18 percent, with 14 percent undecided. The Tea Party candidate would siphon most support from Republicans and independents -- 22 percent from each group -- and only 12 percent from Democrats.
The wild cards in the poll, however, are that the survey didn't name any particular Tea Party candidate nor did it name the GOP nominee because a June 8 primary will decide that crowded contest.
"Reid's winning against nameless, faceless people," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon. "It's easier to win against nameless, faceless people than real people."
Among Republicans, gaming executive and former state Sen. Sue Lowden is leading the GOP pack, ahead of former UNLV basketball star and businessman Danny Tarkanian and followed by former Reno Assemblywoman Sharron Angle -- all three of whom are ahead of Reid in the polls.
The filing deadline is Friday, and already 16 candidates have filed for the Senate race, including eight Republicans, four Democrats -- among them former city of Las Vegas attorney Roy Woofter, 76, who also filed Monday -- two independents and one each for the Independent American Party and the Tea Party.
John Chachas, an Ely native and former New York investment banker, hasn't yet filed but is considered a dark horse in the race because he's prepared to spend millions of his own dollars.
The Tea Party candidate, Las Vegas businessman Jon Scott Ashjian, a former Republican, came out of nowhere to announce his candidacy, surprising the national movement and the GOP that's been wooing the conservative, anti-tax, anti-big government group. His entrance prompted whispers that Reid's campaign was behind the effort, which involves a Democratic lawyer handling the paperwork.
Reid said Monday he had nothing to do with it, saying, "I think there are too many conspiracists."
"I don't know him. I don't know his family. I don't know anything about him," Reid said of Ashjian, who has said the same thing about not knowing or even meeting the senator before.
Republican Party and Tea Party movement leaders expressed alarm at the potential to ruin the anti-Reid crowd's best chance to knock the senator out of power after four decades in office.
"Our people are very concerned," said Chris Comfort, head of the Republican Party in Nevada, who counts himself as a Tea Party member. "I've spoken to the Tea Party people. The big suspicion is this guy is a false leg. We've got to get the message out. . . . We're always concerned about Harry Reid pulling out a last-minute win, and we're fighting that to make sure he doesn't win."
Levi Russell, spokesman for the national Tea Party Express that's campaigning to replace Reid and plans to launch a cross-country tour on March 27 from the senator's hometown of Searchlight, said the movement has no room for the interloper Ashjian on the official bus.
"The general consensus is he's a fraud," Russell said.
Ashjian, 46, has defended his right to run under the Tea Party banner.
"I'm a frustrated patriot," Ashjian told the Review-Journal as he promoted his campaign in a round of local and national media interviews. "I'm not a politician. I'm not savvy with radio and TV. But I believe I can make a change, and that's what I'm here for. I'm here to give people a third voice."
Reid said he also is pinning his re-election hopes on rebuilding the Democratic Party machine that his people put together for the early Nevada caucuses in 2008. Democrats still have a voter advantage over Republicans thanks to the registration drive that helped Obama win the White House.
"Those caucuses have been really good for the body politic in Nevada," Reid said. "We have unquestionably the strongest party organization of any place in the country."
The senator from Searchlight tied his future to Nevada's, saying he was anticipating "working in the next many months to right the ship. And as I said, we're doing better."
Coker of Mason-Dixon said that in his opinion the most likely way Reid could win re-election on Nov. 2 would be if the Tea Party and other independent candidates could gain a total of at least 15 percent of the general election vote, a long-shot prospect given poor third-party showings in the past.
In one scenario, for example, Reid could raise his voter support to 43 percent by Election Day, and if third parties drained off 15 percent of the ballots, the Republican would lose at 42 percent.
Reid, not known for his humor, made light of the complex electoral math that could come into play Election Day, saying his best shot at victory is simply "getting more votes than the rest of the people."
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