WASHINGTON -- Sue Lowden has emerged as a clear leader among Republicans fighting for the chance to run against Sen. Harry Reid this fall, according to a new poll that also shows the incumbent Democrat continues to trail against his major challengers.
But the polling done for the Las Vegas Review-Journal also shows this year's U.S. Senate race could undergo a major shake-up if a Tea Party candidate gets involved.
It would be a new ballgame, and Reid would be the big beneficiary.
A disaffected conservative running under the Tea Party banner would drain support from a Republican candidate, according to polling of a three-way contest.
In that case, Reid would draw 36 percent of voters, while the Republican nominee would get 32 percent and the Tea Party candidate 18 percent if the election were held today.
Pollster Brad Coker said the numbers figure to change depending on the identity of the Republican and the Tea Party candidate, but at this point, "it does show that a three-way vote would help Reid."
Brandon Hall, Reid's campaign manager, said: "For the first time, the Review-Journal is releasing a poll that shows Senator Reid winning."
The "Tea Party of Nevada" filed organizational paperwork in January with the Nevada secretary of state. John Ashjian, a Las Vegas businessman and political newcomer, is being mentioned as its Senate contender.
David Damore, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor, said it would be unlikely for the Tea Party to draw 18 percent of the vote in November, "but even eight or nine percent could make a difference."
It may be Reid's clearest path to re-election in a year when voters are clearly expressing dissatisfaction with Washington, according to other numbers in the poll of 625 likely Nevada voters taken Monday through Wednesday. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Reid's favorability ratings remained largely unchanged from polling a month earlier. He continues to be underwater with 33 percent of respondents having a positive view of him and 51 percent viewing him unfavorably.
The poll also shows that Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, another presumed Republican front-runner, continue to hold leads and may have widened them slightly over the past month in head-to-head matchups with Reid:
■ Lowden, a businesswoman and former state senator, bests Reid by a 52-39 percent margin if the vote were held today, according to the poll. Her lead in polling from Jan. 5-7 was 50-40.
■ Tarkanian, a Las Vegas businessman and attorney, would prevail over Reid by 51-40 percent today. In January, he held a 49-41 lead.
Coker, managing partner of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, said those changes are statistically insignificant. But he said it's worth noting that Reid continues to be stuck at around 40 percent in the matchups.
Another thing to watch, Coker said, are independents, who make up about 20 percent of the electorate. Both Lowden and Tarkanian continued to draw more than 50 percent support from those voters, with Reid's backing at 31 percent against Lowden and 38 percent against Tarkanian, according to the poll.
"As long as the Republican candidate has a significant lead among independents, it will be pretty hard for Reid to win," Coker said. "I don't see today where Reid can get 45 percent of the vote."
Other analysts say don't write off Reid just yet. The dynamics of the race inevitably will change once a challenger emerges from the GOP primary in June, and Reid can target his multimillion-dollar war chest, they say.
"That is going to unleash the Reid tidal wave of attacks, and that is going to be harmful" to the challenger, said Damore, the UNLV professor.
Plus, Damore said, "The Dems will be able to show something in the next six-seven months in terms of legislative accomplishments. The numbers are going to close. I think this is going to be a nail-biter."
According to the poll, Lowden has opened a lead of 47 percent to 29 percent for Tarkanian among likely Republican primary voters.
Conservative activist Sharron Angle, a former Reno assemblywoman, drew 8 percent support. John Chachas, an Ely native who quit his job as an investment banker in New York and is starting his campaign with a large war chest, drew 1 percent.
Lowden and Tarkanian were running in a statistical tie in early January polling. Early in February, Lowden began spending more than $100,000 on television ads, a move that analysts say seems to be paying off so far.
"If you have Lowden at almost 50 percent right now, then things are starting to move," Coker said.
The telephone poll of 300 Republican voters conducted Feb. 22-24 had a margin for error of 6 percentage points.
Lowden, a former chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, "clearly is stepping up and starting to pull away in the primary, which is why we are starting to see daily attacks on her from Harry Reid and his Washington allies," said her campaign manager Robert Uithoven.
Brian Seitchik, Tarkanian's campaign manager, said Lowden "is purchasing an early lead among voters paying casual attention, but she has not succeeded in cutting into Danny Tarkanian's base of support," which was at 28 percent in January.
"We will engage at the proper time," Seitchik said.
Damore said Lowden "right now has a free ride because Tarkanian is not on TV. He is talking up the grass roots and he doesn't seem to have much on that going yet."
Coker said the Republican race remains fluid. While Angle's support is in the single digits, for instance, "I would not bet on her but I would not write her off just yet, because there is a lot of time left before the (June 8) primary."
Angle narrowly lost the 2006 Republican primary for Congress from the 2nd Congressional District to Dean Heller, and remains a favorite of the conservative wing, Coker said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.