It's the highest stakes ever for a Nevada election, and former boxer Sen. Harry Reid is on the ropes early. Either Republican Danny Tarkanian or Sue Lowden would knock out Reid in a general election, according to a recent poll of Nevada voters.
The results suggest the Democratic Senate majority leader will have to punch hard and often in order to retain his position as the most accomplished politician in state history, in terms of job status.
Nevadans favored Tarkanian over Reid 49 percent to 38 percent and Lowden over Reid 45 percent to 40 percent, according to the poll.
Reid's status makes him an icon of the Democratic Party and ties him to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and President Barack Obama, both of whom are losing ground among centrist and right-leaning voters in the country.
Winning "becomes more difficult when you are actually the one having to carry the water for the president," said Richard Davis, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University in Utah. "He (Reid) has got to get something out of the Obama administration that he can claim as his own."
But with the election more than a year away, Reid has plenty of time to attract more supporters to his corner.
Between now and November, 2010, Reid will attempt to show voters he can deliver lower health care costs and new jobs to Nevada, which has an unemployment rate pushing 13 percent.
"He fights for Nevada on those issues and others every day and he'll continue that battle to get our economy back on track," Reid spokesman Jon Summers said.
Reid also will remind voters, and influential fundraisers, that his in-state connections and national clout can pay dividends for all of Nevada.
"Senator Reid's leadership for Nevada has earned him broad support, including from nearly 150 Republican leaders in Nevada who recognize that he is a powerful voice for Nevada," Summers said.
Such talk doesn't impress Republican strategist Robert Uithoven, a Lowden supporter.
Lowden, chairwoman of the state Republican Party, hasn't officially started a campaign but has spent thousands of dollars to research her chances.
Uithoven says Reid's focus on power and money won't sway the 50 percent of everyday voters who, according to the poll, have an unfavorable view of him, compared to just 37 percent with a favorable opinion.
"A lot of what drives support toward Senator Reid is fear in this state. And I don't think fear is a good motivation for voters," Uithoven said.
But before Lowden or Tarkanian get to Reid, they'll have to deal with one another.
Jamie Fisfis, a consultant and pollster for Tarkanian, says his candidate, a real estate professional and former UNLV basketball player who has campaigned unsuccessfully for secretary of state and state Senate, is already laying important groundwork throughout the state, and the independent poll results back him up.
The statewide poll of 400 registered voters was taken Monday and Tuesday by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc., and has a margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points. Mason-Dixon then conducted an over-sampling of 300 Democratic voters and 300 Republican voters in which respondents were only asked questions about their party's primary race and not questions dealing with the general election. The margin of error for the additional polling is plus or minus 6 percentage points.
Among likely Republican primary voters, Tarkanian received support from 33 percent of respondents to Lowden's 14, albeit with 47 percent undecided.
"It shows what we have maintained to our supporters and those who have joined us early. Danny Tarkanian is the strongest candidate to beat Harry Reid," Fisfis said.
No matter which Republican emerges to challenge Reid, both acknowledge the race will get more difficult every day.
Reid, who intends to raise as much as $25 million for his re-election effort, is an experienced campaigner and will attract national forces to increase voter turnout in a state that has more Democrats than Republicans.
The Hispanic Institute, a national nonprofit aimed at increasing turnout among Hispanic voters, is preparing to launch the Nevada Voter Registration Project. The effort includes support from Temo Figueroa, who was the National Latino Vote Director for Obama's successful campaign. It could launch as soon as Labor Day weekend, according to Nevada organizers.
Whether such a voter drive can help Reid overcome the support deficit he has now remains to be seen.
Mason-Dixon managing director Brad Coker said it's unlikely Reid can generate the kind of voter enthusiasm Obama did in 2008.
"If Obama didn't register them, good luck," Coker said. "It is going to be harder to turn them out for Harry Reid than it was for Barack Obama. I suspect some of that might be the charisma quotient."
The poll also pitted a potential matchup between Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., against Reid. Heller said recently that he wouldn't run against Reid, but if he had gotten into the race the poll shows him ahead of Reid by 10 points.
Besides questions about the race for Reid's seat, respondents gave their views on the prospects for Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.
Ensign is embroiled in a scandal over an extramarital affair with a former staffer and subsequent payments of $96,000 from his parents to the family of the employee.
According to the poll, 30 percent of voters said they would re-elect Ensign, 23 percent would consider a challenger and 37 percent said they would vote to replace him. Last month, a Mason-Dixon poll showed 28 percent would re-elect Ensign, 30 percent would consider a challenger and 31 percent would vote to replace him.
Ensign's term doesn't expire until 2012.
"It is better for him the election is 2012 and not 2010," Coker said. "He may save 100 people from a burning building and everything will be forgiven."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861.