Danny Tarkanian said Wednesday that he is optimistic about running for Congress after a poll the Republican commissioned shows he could win Nevada's newest U.S. House seat.
Tarkanian plans to announce in January after the holidays whether he will launch a formal bid for the 4th Congressional District, which includes North Las Vegas and parts or all of five rural counties.
"If I had to make a decision right now to do it, it would be easy," Tarkanian said. "This gives me more optimism. But there are a lot of factors. And there's no reason to rush into a decision."
Tarkanian's entry into the contest for the new Southern Nevada seat would set up a highly competitive GOP primary with state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, who announced her campaign last month. Another Republican, businessman Dan Schwartz, also is running.
The Republican winner would face Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, in November in what probably would be an uphill general election battle to win the Democratic-leaning seat.
Tarkanian's survey shows he has a big head start given his high name recognition in both a GOP primary and a general election, although he has lost three previous tries at public office.
Jerry Tarkanian, who coached a national champion University of Nevada, Las Vegas, basketball team, is his father. The businessman's mother is Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian.
According to the poll of likely GOP primary voters, Tarkanian could beat Cegavske by 73 percent to 9 percent if the election were held now.
Tarkanian was known by 95 percent of those surveyed compared with only 29 percent for Cegavske.
In a general election matchup, Tarkanian could beat Horsford 47 percent to 36 percent if the vote were now, according to an overall poll of likely voters. In comparison, Horsford could beat Cegavske 43 percent to 32 percent, the survey found.
Name recognition made the big difference in any general election matchup.
Tarkanian was known by 86 percent of those surveyed compared with 43 percent for Horsford and 27 percent for Cegavske.
Tellingly, the general election would be a dead heat among likely voters who recognize the names of both Tarkanian and Horsford -- 46 percent to 45 percent -- according to the poll.
"This race is going to tighten up," pollster Glen Bolger said. "The challenge for both Cegavske and Horsford is they both have to raise a lot of money to raise their name IDs."
Cegavske and the Horsford campaign dismissed Tarkanian as a political dreamer.
Cegavske said Tarkanian wins polls but not elections, including losing secretary of state in 2006 and state Senate in 2004.
In 2010, Tarkanian finished third in the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate despite leading in early polls before Sue Lowden got into the race and tea party favorite Sharron Angle rose to win the GOP nomination. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was re-elected.
A conservative stalwart in the Legislature, Cegavske said she has won six consecutive elections, including for her Senate district, which leans Democratic by party registration.
"Nevada's leading Republicans want to nominate a winner to challenge the Democrat in the 4th Congressional District," Cegavske said in a statement. "I am proud to have the support of Nevada's two Republican congressmen, Mark Amodei and Joe Heck, and I look forward to working with them to solve the serious problems facing Nevada and the country."
Cegavske said she wouldn't consider dropping out of the race and believes she can win, especially if she raises enough money to become both a primary and general election threat.
"I'm not taking anything for granted," she said. "We're working very hard."
Horsford's campaign seemed to relish the idea of a Republican primary, which could weaken the GOP nominee, cost extra money and soften up the opposition for the general election.
"I'll leave it to the Republicans to sort out their own primary," said Geoffrey Mackler, spokesman for Horsford's campaign. "Steven is focused on helping people find jobs in a tough economy, improving education and supporting Nevada's veterans as they return home from Iraq and Afghanistan."
Horsford may avoid any real Democratic competition. Last month, state Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, dropped out of the race to run for re-election instead, clearing the field for Horsford.
The new 4th Congressional District favors the Democratic candidate, according to party registration in the area it covers: North Las Vegas, a part of Lyon County and all of Esmeralda, Lincoln, Mineral, Nye and White Pine counties. The U.S. census of 2010 put the Democratic voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district at about 13 percentage points.
But Tarkanian ordered up a fresh look based on current registration and found the advantage has dropped to 11 percentage points: 45 percent Democratic and 34 percent Republican. The remaining 21 percent were registered with other political parties or as nonpartisan, according to the review.
Tarkanian said he would consult his wife, Nevada GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian, and discuss his chances and the financial burden on his family, including his four children.
He also said he realizes he can't afford to lose another election, which could end his political ambitions.
"If I jump in, I'm going to jump in because I really believe I've got a shot at winning," Tarkanian said. "I'm taking my time and doing my due diligence to make sure this is the right race for me to run in."
The telephone survey of 400 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
The poll of 328 likely GOP primary voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.41 percentage points. The surveys were conducted on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
Contact reporter Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.