In Nev. Senate Race, Reid Can Bet on a Close Call
By Lou Cannon
But some analysts say that Tuesday's contest between Reid and his Republican challenger, Rep. John Ensign, 40, could be as close as in 1974, when Reid lost his first bid for the Senate by 624 votes.
Jon Ralston, who publishes a political newsletter, said the Reid-Ensign race also could be decided by a few hundred votes. The two candidates are virtually tied in polls taken by both sides and two casinos. Results of Nevada's extensive early-voting system give Democrats a narrow edge.
"It's really a flat-footed tie," said Mike Slanker, Ensign's campaign manager. "All polls are within the margin of error."
The tightness of the race is good news for Reid, who seemed to be in free fall a few weeks ago. Now, he could win if organized labor delivers its long-promised get-out-the-vote effort on Election Day.
Trade unions are potent in metropolitan Las Vegas (Clark County), which has more than two-thirds of Nevada's population and remains the nation's principal gambling destination. Culinary and construction unions have organized effectively, taking advantage of the fact that casinos and hotels cannot easily move away to take advantage of lower wages, as industries do in other states.
"Labor is our strongest weapon," said Larry Werner, Reid's longtime aide and campaign manager.
Ironically, however, the race could be determined in the Reno area (Washoe County), where Republicans are stronger and unions weaker. Reno has not experienced the explosive growth of Clark County, and Reid is valued in northern Nevada for resolving thorny environmental and water issues. He has been endorsed by the Reno Gazette-Journal, which more often than not supports Republican candidates.
Sig Rogich, the state's premier political consultant and adviser to GOP gubernatorial nominee Kenny Guinn, said a spot poll of 250 early voters in Reno showed both Guinn and Reid leading by 2 to 1 margins.
But in populous Clark County, outside Las Vegas, Reid has had a struggle. Ensign, who upset a Democratic incumbent in 1994 and was reelected two years later, is on the ballot for the third time in four years and is better known to many of the newcomers who have poured into southern Nevada at the rate of more than 100,000 a year since Reid was reelected to a second term in 1992.
Reid is trying to convince the newcomers that his seniority in the Senate, where he is in line to become Democratic whip, will enable him to do more for Nevada than Ensign could accomplish as a freshman member of the GOP majority. To underscore this point, Democrats this week brought in Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to reassure voters that the Clinton administration opposes using Nevada as a site for temporary nuclear waste storage. Reid, backed by a veto threat from President Clinton, takes credit for blocking such action in the past.
The Reid campaign also is banking on a heavy turnout of women on behalf of Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones (D), who trails Guinn, a retired businessman, by five points in the same polls that show Reid and Ensign virtually tied.
"We have a great Democratic ticket in Nevada Harry Reid and five women," Reid says in campaign speeches. This refers to Jones, three other statewide nominees and businesswoman Shelley Berkeley, who is locked in a tight race for Ensign's open House seat with Republican Don Chairez, a former judge.
Ensign, the only veterinarian in Congress, has proven a durable candidate. Even Democratic operatives say he seemed more polished and confident than Reid in their three debates.
The two candidates and their parties have waged an expensive and mostly negative television campaign in which Reid has sought to portray Ensign as a right-wing extremist and Ensign has described Reid as a tax-and-spend liberal. Both have been more pragmatic in office than these campaign caricatures.
Werner acknowledges that Democrats were hurt by "the Clinton factor" in a state where the president has low favorable ratings. Reid was among the first Democrats to criticize Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. And when Vice President Gore visited Las Vegas, Reid did not show up.
But Ensign also has had party problems. With some embarrassment, he "disinvited" Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) and Sen. Larry E. Craig (Idaho) to a fund-raising event because of their support for using Nevada as a temporary nuclear waste dump.
While Ensign was slow to respond on the nuclear waste issue, on which his position is the same as Reid's, he may have scored points with a recent ad that questions Reid's clout. The ad cites a study showing that Nevada has fallen from 22nd to 46th among the states on tax dollars returned during Reid's Senate tenure.
At a veterans rally for Reid on Wednesday, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.‚Va.) called the ad "silly." He said the reduction occurred because most federal allocations are based on the 1990 Census, and Nevada's population has nearly doubled since then. The Las Vegas Review-Journal said in a campaign analysis that "Reid won the pork war," bringing $839 million to Nevada during a three-year period as member of the Appropriations Committee.
Yet Ralston questions the impact these last-minute maneuverings are having on an election he says is now "completely turnout-driven."
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