Visiting Las Vegas, President Barack Obama praised Rep. Dina Titus for "doing a great job."
"Love Dina," Obama gushed at a July 8 rally of supporters, where the president also talked up U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the unpopular Democratic Senate leader seeking re-election.
Less than half the voters in Titus' congressional district, however, are feeling that same love for the freshman Democrat, according to a new poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and KLAS-TV, Channel 8.
The survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. shows Titus in a dead heat with Republican challenger Joe Heck in one of the closest races in the country, a high-stakes contest that will help decide whether Democrats keep or lose control of the House of Representatives.
More troublesome for Titus, about as many voters have an unfavorable opinion of her as favorable: 41 percent to 42 percent. That will make it tough to attract more folks to her side in a year in which the people in her district live at ground zero of Nevada's home foreclosure crisis.
"She's not in a good place for an incumbent to be at this stage of the race," said pollster Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon, adding that momentum is on the Republicans' side this year with voters frustrated by the Democratic Party in power. "Titus is clearly vulnerable."
Still, prospects have improved a bit for Titus in the past few months.
The latest Mason-Dixon poll shows her edging out Heck 42 percent to 40 percent, with 9 percent undecided, 5 percent choosing "other" and 4 percent picking "none of these" candidates. The survey of 400 likely voters in Congressional District 3 had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
In April, Heck was narrowly leading in the race, 49 percent to 44 percent, according to a previous Mason-Dixon poll for the Review-Journal with a margin of error of 6 points. Coker attributed the Heck bump then to passage of the health care law, which most Nevadans don't like and which Titus supported and Heck opposes.
The economy is the main issue in the Titus-Heck race as Nevada suffers a record high unemployment rate of 14 percent as well as record home foreclosure and bankruptcy rates.
Titus said she recognizes the uphill battle she faces for re-election, two years after she swept into office thanks to a big Democratic Party registration drive that helped elect Obama. Democrats maintain a registration edge over the GOP in her district where previous office holders were all Republican.
"Events like this are great to get the base enthused," Titus said at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, after she attended Obama's speech there with Reid and other Democrats.
Yet Titus realizes that while Obama and Reid can help fire up Democrats, she must run her own campaign and carve out her own identity to win over nonpartisan voters who will determine the race.
"I'm not Barack Obama. I'm not Harry Reid. I'm not Nancy Pelosi," Titus said at UNLV, referring to the speaker of the House from California. "I'm Dina Titus. My job is we're going to be talking about Dina Titus and what she's done in Congressional District 3."
Titus said she has held five housing workshops for people to work with banks so they can keep their homes in an area where 70 percent of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. Her office also has helped constituents get about $7 million worth of benefits due from Veterans Affairs, Social Security and Medicare, according to Titus.
The July 12-14 Mason-Dixon poll showed Titus and Heck splitting the non-partisan vote at 39 percent each with the rest undecided or choosing other or "none of these" candidates.
"I hope the independents are still open-minded," Titus said, saying she thinks she can do especially well among nonpartisan women who "understand kitchen-table issues" key to the 2010 election.
Titus is doing better among women then men compared with Heck -- 45 percent to 35 percent -- while Heck is polling better among men: 46 percent to 39 percent.
As for Heck, the former state senator, like other Republicans, argues that the government bailouts and the $787 billion stimulus didn't create or save jobs but instead deepened the country's debt.
"The administration has failed," Heck said on the sidelines of last weekend's Nevada Republican Party Convention. "The stimulus package didn't trickle down to the man on the street."
Heck's campaign has been painting Titus as walking in lock step with Obama, Reid and Pelosi and caring more about the Democratic Party agenda and expanding government than about Nevadans.
The Titus campaign, in turn, has been lumping Heck with Republican Sharron Angle, the staunch conservative and Tea Party favorite who is running against Reid.
Heck said he is happy to run alongside Angle and other conservative Republicans.
"We're working together with a common objective" of cutting back federal spending, Heck said.
His views are more nuanced than Angle's, however, on several divisive issues.
On Social Security, Heck and Angle want to allow workers to invest in private retirement accounts instead of paying into the system. But under Heck's plan, workers would be allowed to invest a 6.25 percent payroll tax now collected for Social Security in private accounts. A matching 6.25 percent collected for Social Security from employers would continue to fund the system for current beneficiaries.
"Any change to Social Security will be generational change," Heck said.
As for the Education Department, which Angle says she would like to eliminate, Heck said lawmakers should consider downsizing it to save money and focus on "common goals" nationally to allow more local and state control of schools. Former President Jimmy Carter made the Education Department its own free-standing Cabinet-level agency, a decision Heck sees as unnecessary.
For now, Heck is not widely known in the district; 15 percent still don't recognize his name, according to the Mason-Dixon poll. Of those who do, 34 percent have a favorable opinion of him compared with 13 percent unfavorable and 38 percent with a neutral view.
Neither Titus nor Heck has started advertising on TV, a costly endeavor.
Titus has far more cash on hand to spend once the campaign heats up in the fall. She reported $1.2 million in the bank after raising $426,000 in the last quarter ending June 30. That compares with $362,139 cash on hand for Heck, who raised only $124,361 during the most recent fundraising period.
Nathan Gonzales, a House race analyst with the Rothenberg Political Report, said the challenge for Titus and Heck is to get their messages out to voters while the highly competitive U.S. Senate race between Reid and Angle is taking up all the TV and media oxygen along with the gubernatorial race.
"It's not a matter of resources. It's a matter of cutting through all the clutter," Gonzales said.
Titus could benefit by a highly successful get-out-the-vote effort by the Reid campaign and Democrats hoping for a replay of 2008, although Obama isn't on the ballot.
But in the end, she and Heck need to reach beyond their bases to win, with Heck having an advantage among voters who are upset by the dour economy, Gonzales said.
"He just has to be an acceptable alternative for voters who want change," Gonzales said. "And he has to avoid making any major mistakes while keeping the focus on Titus."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.