Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the nation's most powerful Democrats, is in danger of losing his seat to either a former Miss America runner-up or the son of a famous basketball coach who never has held high public office.
At least that what a recent poll says.
The Nevada lawmaker, who will be seeking a fifth term in office November 2010, is trailing Republican challenger Danny Tarkanian, scion of the legendary Jerry Tarkanian, former hoops coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, by 11 percent points, according to a poll taken in mid-August by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc.
Mr. Reid also would lose by five points to Sue Lowden, the Nevada Republican Party chairwoman and a former state senator, the poll shows.
So is the career of Nevada's senior statesman doomed? Don't bet on it, political experts say.
"Is he vulnerable? Yes. Is he a lame duck? Absolutely not," said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Reno.
"One thing you have to remember is, Harry Reid has never been this overwhelmingly popular politician. He's never had real good numbers, and yet he still wins," Mr. Herzik said. "With most politicians, looking at these numbers, I'd be saying, 'Oh, they're in serious trouble.' For Harry Reid, it's like, 'OK, he's going to have to have his usual tough re-election fight.'"
UNLV political science professor David Damore agreed that Mr. Reid's chances of victory next year are "pretty safe."
"He's done a nice job structuring the [political] environment that's going to make it tough for the Republicans to win, even if things go very, very poorly in the Senate on, say, health care or something along those lines," he said.
The soft-spoken senator from the Nevada hamlet of Searchlight appears mild-mannered, even meek, on the surface. But those who know the man describe his uncanny instinct for political survival and his insatiable will to win — which some have called ruthless.
The senator's quiet temper occasionally results in unwanted attention. Nevada's largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal — which boasts a conservative-leaning opinion section — reported on Sunday that Mr. Reid told its advertising director at a Chamber of Commerce gathering, "I hope you go out of business."
"Harry Reid's not the best campaigner, he's not the most personable guy you're ever going to meet … and so if an election is close, he's got to work all that much harder," Mr. Herzik said. "But that's what Harry Reid does best — organize and work."
A lack of political heavyweights willing to challenge Mr. Reid is a big reason why many election handicappers predict he will retain his seat.
Jennifer Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report, says Mr. Tarkanian's early lead is largely a reflection of his popular surname — not an endorsement of his political qualities.
"I don't know how serious a candidate he is — he's run for two offices and lost both races," Ms. Duffy said. "I don't detect a lot of enthusiasm for Tarkanian."
Ms. Duffy has rated the 2010 Nevada Senate race as going "likely" Democratic. Congressional Quarterly, which operates another respected election prediction Web site, says the race "leans" toward the Democrat.
The junior Tarkanian, a real estate developer who has run unsuccessfully for secretary of state and a state Senate seat, told The Washington Times' radio program "America's Morning News" last week that he's not intimidated by Mr. Reid.
"You have to find someone who is not scared of Harry Reid, because to run against Harry Reid means you have to understand that he's going to get very vicious," Mr. Tarkanian said. "He's a tough competitor, and he's got a ton of money and will come after you."
Republicans had pinned their hopes to unseat Mr. Reid on Rep. Dean Heller, a second-term lawmaker whose district lies north of Las Vegas and includes most of the state geographically. But when the Republican congressman this summer decided not to run against Mr. Reid, many in the party turned their attention to Ms. Lowden as a potential Senate challenger.
Ms. Lowden, Miss New Jersey 1973 and second runner-up in the Miss America pageant, is well-liked and is a proficient fundraiser, having taken in $25,000 in small donations during a recent weekend, said Nevada Republican spokesman Bernie Zadrowski.
With her role as head of the state party, Ms. Lowden is viewed by many analysts as the strongest Republican candidate available to take on Mr. Reid.
"She's the total package," Mr. Zadrowski said. "You've got a smart woman who knows politics, good conservative bona fides, she's wealthy, she has the ability to raise money, and for God sakes, she's beautiful."
While leadership positions on Capitol Hill typically equate to a cushy advantage for an incumbent, a handful of aggressive challengers have picked off some high-profile members of Congress in recent elections. Among the most noteworthy was another Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, who was unseated by Republican John Thune in 2004's bitterly contested South Dakota Senate race.
Because Mr. Reid's position gives him heightened exposure, every political miscue is magnified, making him — like Mr. Daschle — a potential fat target for challengers.
"His deficiencies, meaning his inabilities, have really come to the forefront and show him for what he has been, which is weak in representing the state of Nevada," Mr. Zadrowski said. "Those poll numbers are simply a reflection of the fact."
Reid spokesman Jon Summers dismissed as nonsense the Republicans' notion that his boss's leadership position is a liability.
"Although they would never admit it, I think they recognize that Senator Reid is in a position to do great things for the state," he said. "It's going to be an uphill battle to try to convince people that they don't benefit by having the majority leader as their senator."
Mr. Summers also pointed to Democrats' bulging state membership as evidence that Mr. Reid's seat is safe. Nevadans flocked to the party last year during President Obama's successful White House bid, and the once solid Republican red state, which Mr. Obama won by an astounding 12 percent points, now boasts 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
But because Nevada's entertainment industry makes it one of the most transient states in the nation, the power of incumbency is diluted because candidates — and particularly senators with their lengthy six-year terms — must reintroduce themselves every election to thousands of new residents.
"Despite what Democrats like to say about Nevada that they've flipped it and its now a blue state, I don't really believe that," Ms. Duffy said. "It could be trending in that direction, but one election does not make a state."
Still, Silver State Republicans' say they will be careful to avoid overconfidence.
"We're not suggesting it's in the bag for us or that we're sitting pretty," Mr. Zadrowski said. "We know it's an uphill battle, but we do feel good about our chances because we've got some great candidates."