Republican Sue Lowden has the best chance of defeating U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, according to a new poll for the Review-Journal that also suggests the Democratic incumbent could beat Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle in the fall, although he remains as unpopular as ever.
For the first time, a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research poll indicates that Reid could win re-election, even over Lowden, the one-time GOP front-runner whom the Democrat most fears and has most attacked. She is seen as moderate and a stronger general election foe than Angle, a staunch conservative now tied for the GOP primary lead.
The poll also reinforces the notion Angle is too far right to attract enough of the independents and crossover Democrats she would need to win. Her campaign rejects that argument, saying she is exactly the type of candidate voters are looking for in 2010 to clean out the incumbent class in Washington.
"If Harry Reid had to pick his opponent he would pick Sharron Angle," said pollster Brad Coker.
"She's the most polarizing. She's clearly the most conservative. But that 20 percent of independent voters are the ones who are going to decide this election. And it's easier for them to pick a Lowden or even a Tarkanian," he added, referring to GOP contender Danny Tarkanian.
According to the Mason-Dixon poll taken Monday through Wednesday, if the general election were held today, here's how the leading Republican contenders would fare against Reid:
■ Lowden would win 42 percent of the vote and Reid 39 percent. Ten percent remain undecided, 6 percent would choose "none" of these candidates and 3 percent would pick "other" contenders.
■ Tarkanian would get 42 percent and Reid 41 percent, with 10 percent undecided, 4 percent choosing other and 3 percent picking none.
■ Reid would win 42 percent and Angle 39 percent with 10 percent undecided, 5 percent picking other candidates and 4 percent choosing none.
The telephone poll of 625 registered Nevadans who said they vote regularly has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
That means all three general election match-ups are near ties, which is a far cry from before the GOP primary heated up and surveys showed Reid losing to the top three Republicans by double digits. In most surveys, Reid usually picks up about 40 percent of the vote, a percentage that political analysts and even the Reid campaign acknowledge isn't enough to assure victory on Nov. 2.
"Reid is where he's always been," said Coker, who has long discounted the chances of victory for the Senate majority leader, the No. 1 GOP target this year amid a nationwide revolt against the Democratic Party in power. "After the Republican primary, there will be time for the nominee to put their campaign back together. And I think Reid will do a lot to unify the Republicans against him."
Lowden beats Reid among independents, Tarkanian splits them with the Democrat, while Angle would lose that key swing group to Reid, according to the poll. Both Lowden and Tarkanian would pick up more Democrats than Angle in a match-up with Reid, who needs to keep his base on board.
The Reid campaign said Thursday it is ready to battle whichever GOP nominee emerges.
"We think between now and November, when we articulate Senator Reid's record of what he's done for Nevada, and contrast that with the agenda of whichever Republican comes out of the primary, people will ultimately return him. He's able to fight for Nevada, and he's able to deliver unlike anyone else can for this state," said Kelly Steele, communications director for the Reid campaign.
Asked whether it's true Reid would rather face Angle than Lowden, Steele wouldn't bite, although he noted Lowden has "gone after Reid" and his campaign has fired back with force.
With early voting under way before the June 8 primary, the race for the GOP nomination has tightened. Lowden is no longer in a free fall caused by Reid attacks and her own gaffes, and Angle's Tea Party-infused momentum has slowed. Danny Tarkanian remains stalled behind them.
According to the poll of 500 likely GOP voters, if the primary were held today:
■ Lowden, a former state senator, would win 30 percent of the vote.
■ Angle, a former Reno assemblywoman, 29 percent.
■ Tarkanian, a Las Vegas businessman, 23 percent.
■ Chad Christensen, a Las Vegas assemblyman, 3 percent
■ John Chachas, a Wall Street banker and Ely native, 2 percent
The primary survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Two weeks ago, Angle shook up the race when her support skyrocketed to 25 percent in the last Mason-Dixon poll after winning the Tea Party Express endorsement, while Lowden dropped by double digits to 30 percent after being repeatedly mocked for suggesting people could barter for health care. Tarkanian was at 22 percent, Chachas at 3 percent and Christensen at 2 percent.
The GOP primary seems to have stabilized as Lowden began airing attack ads on radio and TV against Angle, her biggest threat, to undercut her conservative credentials by criticizing the few times she voted for tax or fee hikes as well as backing failed proposals to raise legislators' salaries.
Angle, meanwhile, has been getting help from the Tea Party Express and the conservative Club for Growth, which together are expected to spend about $1 million on ads to promote her campaign. And she's got three dozen endorsements and a loyal core of rural and Northern Nevada supporters.
Tarkanian, who has lost two previous elections, is working hard to shore up his support in rural Nevada to pick off Angle voters as well as in Clark County, a must-win base for Lowden as well.
According to the poll, which also measured intensity of support, Tarkanian has the most "definite" voters at 59 percent compared with 54 percent for Lowden and 51 percent for Angle.
But more Angle voters seem to want to stick by her in the ballot box, with only 8 percent saying they "might change" their minds, compared with 14 percent for Lowden and 13 percent for Tarkanian.
Erik Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said he doesn't think Angle can gain much more support to win the primary, because she has "squeezed out her portion of the conservative Republican electorate" and centrists and independents may not go her way.
As for Lowden, Herzik said she needs to keep the votes she has and hope she gets defections from Tarkanian supporters, who may break for her if they think he can't win.
"Tarkanian is in serious trouble. So, do his supporters say, 'I don't care; I'm going to vote for Danny anyway,' or do they think of switching to the Republican who's more likely to win in November?" Herzik said. "And I don't see how Angle wins in November. Lowden could win if she's not too damaged."
This is just the end-game election argument Lowden's campaign is making as it moves to get out the vote -- that she's the only Republican who has a chance against the Reid machine in the fall.
"Ultimately, this primary is much more about November than it is about June," said Lowden campaign manager Robert Uithoven. "The Reid campaign has thrown everything at us, and Sue Lowden is still in the lead. She has shown remarkable resiliency in a wave of attacks from every direction."
Angle is just now coming under the microscope as critics pore over her every vote and every remark, accusing her of everything from being aligned with Scientology to suggesting liquor should be outlawed like marijuana -- attacks she and her campaign have called ridiculous.
"These attacks are coming from people who don't want Angle to win because she is not part of the establishment," said Angle spokesman Jerry Stacy. "As far as momentum goes, Sharron has assembled a large unstoppable coalition of support whose mission is to replace Harry Reid in November with a principled candidate. Voters are upset with the current politics as usual crowd."
Tarkanian can't be counted out yet. His campaign is happy Lowden and Angle are the main targets of attacks, including from outside groups aligned with Republicans and Democrats.
"Three-way races are very tricky because when candidates start beating each other up, voters just start looking around," said Jamie Fisfis, a Tarkanian campaign consultant who doubts Angle can beat Reid in November because of some of her stark positions. "With the other candidates beating up on each other, we feel very good. We like where we are."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.