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All eyes on Berkley as Senate contest looms

Surprise! The first Democrat to formally declare an interest in the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by John Ensign was not Rep. Shelley Berkley.

Instead, it was Byron Georgiou, an attorney and member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. He said in a statement Tuesday that he’ll file papers with the Federal Elections Commission after receiving “significant encouragement” locally and nationally to run for the seat.

On paper, Georgiou is a good candidate: He brings his own money, and he can say he knows what it takes to avoid another financial crisis.

The problem? Democrats don’t seem to be warming to a Georgiou candidacy. Said one national Democratic strategist: “He’s not somebody we would support.”

That means all eyes are still focused on the race’s No. 1 choice, Berkley, who has been adamant about taking her time before she decides. A series of focus groups testing her appeal have wrapped up, and pollster Mark Mellman is about to go into the field to test Berkley against the expected Republican nominee, Rep. Dean Heller.

Berkley has thus far refused to be rushed by Ensign’s Monday announcement that he won’t seek re-election in 2012. And while media types with deadlines are anxious, insiders say waiting doesn’t hurt Berkley in the least.

“She can wait, because she can,” said Democratic strategist Billy Vassiliadis. A delay of weeks (or even months) won’t dent Berkley’s campaign, because her team is already in place and because she’s proven herself to be a prodigious fundraiser. “If she’s behind in anything, she’ll catch up real fast,” Vassiliadis said.

The only problem arises if Berkley ultimately elects to skip the race. Other top candidates — Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto —-would have to scramble to hire staff and raise money if Berkley waits too long.

But some of the most overarching questions are not about Berkley at all, but about the man who will be at the top of the ticket, President Barack Obama.

What will happen with the federal budget? Will there be a government shutdown? Will Republicans succeed in getting deep cuts in spending, or will Obama prevail with a less severe agenda? What will happen with the unemployment rate, the economy, the crisis in nations such as Egypt and Libya and where will gas prices be 18 months from now?

According to Vassiliadis, the answers to those questions will affect Obama’s “brand,” and will have trickle-down effects on the chances of any Democrat running for Senate in Nevada.

That national Democratic strategist was similarly unconcerned with Berkley taking her time, noting Heller has yet to formally declare his candidacy, either.

“We have plenty of time,” he said, noting the state party apparatus that carried U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to victory in 2010 is still in place, and whoever runs will not be starting from scratch.

Still, Democrats in Washington and locally had to admit Tuesday they were disappointed Ensign had chosen to announce he’s quitting so early. They were hoping for a Republican primary pitting Ensign against Heller, exactly the kind of brutal contest Ensign says he wanted to avoid.

Of course, there’s always Sharron Angle, a woman who has shown little concern for party propriety, who’s run against Heller before (and nearly won), who considers most other Republicans squishes and sellouts.

The prospect of Angle challenging Heller in a Republican primary — even though reasonable politicos on both sides agree Angle would have a much better shot at winning Heller’s old congressional seat — is an intoxicating prospect for Democrats.

Can they be that lucky?

Like Berkley’s decision, it’s something we’re going to have to wait to find out.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at 387-5276 or at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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