High stakes in rough-and-tumble Nevada

In Nevada, a state that could decide control of the Senate and White House, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and his challenger, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), are upping the attacks against each other amidst signs of a tightening race.

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Heller will likely run a few points ahead of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on the ballot, but how far Heller can pull ahead — and how close the presidential race remains in the swing state — will likely decide the Senate race.

Heller has led nearly every poll in the past year, but never by more than a few points. Nevada Republicans believe Heller has a slight edge, while the state’s Democrats consider the race a tossup.

Most Nevada-based strategists on both sides agree that President Obama leads Mitt Romney and is likely to win there, barring a major shake-up of the race. Obama has led Romney in most recent polls, with leads ranging from within the margin of error to nine points, depending on the pollster.

Heller has in recent weeks showed he’s worried Romney might drag him down. He was the first purple-state Republican to come out against Romney’s now-infamous “47 percent” remark, and pointedly said to reporters that he had run ahead of the GOP presidential nominee in 2008.

Democrats privately admit Berkley, with her baggage from an ongoing ethics investigation, is not their ideal candidate. Berkley, who is married to a physician who specializes in kidneys, faces a House Ethics Committee investigation into whether she had a conflict of interest in supporting kidney dialysis programs in the state and opposing cuts to Medicare reimbursement for dialysis. But Democrats believe Obama’s coattails, and their superior ground game in the state, could be enough for her to win.

Heller, who has spent most of his campaign attacking Berkley on her ethics issues, continued to do so at last Thursday’s debate. Berkley, meanwhile, continued her assault on Heller’s vote for a Republican House budget that would overhaul Medicare.

But in recent days, both have expanded their attacks in a state known for its rough-and-tumble politics.

Heller is on the air attacking Berkley for supporting the Wall Street and auto bailouts while Nevada’s economy went in the toilet and counter-punching on Medicare. Berkley has hit back on outsourcing — and has ripped Heller on his votes against the DREAM Act, federal student loans and his approval of Arizona’s controversial immigration law in Spanish-language ads.

In statements to The Hill, both campaigns reiterated those attacks.

“When voters go to the polls, they will choose Shelley Berkley’s plan to create good-paying jobs that can’t be shipped overseas, protecting Medicare and Social Security and ensuring that Nevadans have access to affordable education, over Senator Dean Heller’s anti-middle-class record of fighting for the big guys — protecting Wall Street corporations that ship American jobs overseas, big oil companies making record profits, and voting to essentially end Medicare by turning the program over to profit-hungry private insurance companies,” Berkley spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa told The Hill.

“In the coming weeks, Dean Heller will continue to fight for every vote throughout the state, just as he has done throughout this entire campaign,” Heller spokeswoman Chandler Smith fired back. “He also looks forward to hearing why Shelley Berkley voted spend $700 billion to bail out Wall Street and Detroit just as Nevadans were losing their homes, how her support for the trillion-dollar stimulus is helping the middle class, and why she voted to cut $1 trillion from Medicare.”

Nevada is notoriously hard to poll because of its fast-growing Latino population and the unusual “three-shift” schedule many Las Vegas workers maintain. Nearly every poll of the state’s tight 2010 Senate race was wrong, underestimating Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) performance.

A strong ground-game effort in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and approximately two thirds of the state’s voters, contributed to Reid’s surprising margin of victory. Democrats have continued their strong organizational efforts there and, as of this week, have built up a powerful voter registration edge in what was once a swing county.

While Republicans have worked to improve their dysfunctional ground game from two and four years ago, they are playing catch-up against one of the better state-level organizations for either party in the country. The GOP also has to work with a new organization put together outside of the official state party, which was taken over by Ron Paul supporters months ago.

“They have some very good, talented people, but they're tasked with a very difficult job in a very short period of time and they keep having to deal with mini-insurrections from the crazies,” said Jon Ralston, Nevada’s top political reporter. “The people registering here are going to vote and are going to vote Democratic. If they get their lead up to a 110,000-person gap between them and the Republicans in Clark County, they could come out of there with a lead that's almost insurmountable for both Romney and Heller to make up.”