Bernstein closes gap on Ensign in Nevada's U.S. Senate race

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Republican John Ensign's 20-point lead in Nevada's U.S. Senate race has dropped to 11 points, according to a new poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and lasvegas.com.

''You made my day,'' Bernstein said when told that the poll showed Ensign's support had dropped to 50 percent, from 56 percent in a June poll by the Review-Journal.

Bernstein was the choice of 39 percent, up from June's 36 percent. The undecided voters increased from 8 percent in June to 11 percent.

''A 20-point race is not anything you can hold,'' Ensign said. ''Obviously, today's not Election Day, but these ain't bad, even if it were Election Day.''

Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., which conducted the poll, attributed the tightening of the race to factors including Bernstein's surging campaign and Democratic Party activity.

In recent weeks, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent $250,000 on ads blasting Ensign for his positions on senior issues.

Bernstein, an abortion-rights advocate, also has begun airing ads hammering the conservative Ensign on his strict opposition to abortion.

''The Democratic Convention stirred the party base, and Democrats have come home for Al Gore and Democrats down the ticket,'' Coker said.

''If Ensign can hold it at 50, he's still the favorite. If he dips to 45, that might be a sign things are getting stirred,'' he added.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor Ted Jelen said Berstein remains a longshot, ''but it's no longer prohibitive.''

''Bernstein still has a long way to go, but he smoked Ensign out a little bit, out of that hermetically sealed campaign bubble that Ensign's been working in,'' Jelen said.

A breakdown of the poll results shows Ensign has 48 percent to Bernstein's 43 percent in the Las Vegas area - a statistical dead heat in Nevada's biggest urban area.

In the Reno area, Nevada's second largest city, Ensign leads 49 percent to 37 percent; and in in rural Nevada he leads 56 percent to 31 percent.

Ensign's unfavorable rating is now 28 percent, while his favorable rating is 47 percent. His unfavorables have climbed from 19 percent in the newspaper's March poll to the point where he's level with Bernstein, whose job as a personal injury attorney has been viewed as one that automatically carries negatives with voters.

Ensign remains strong with men - 56 percent of men supported him, while 35 percent supported Bernstein. Bernstein's strength is with women - 43 percent of women chose Bernstein while 44 percent said they would vote for Ensign.

The statewide poll of 627 registered Nevada voters was conducted Saturday through Tuesday and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

The sample size was 48 percent men and 52 percent women, and 42 percent Democrats, 45 percent Republicans and 13 percent independents.

Ensign said the tightening of the race ''could be a positive. A lot of people think we have this race wrapped up. This could fire up the volunteers.''

He said he had no idea whether Bernstein's hard-hitting abortion ads were resonating with voters.

''I think it (the changing poll numbers) has to do with the Democratic convention and the top of the ticket right now,'' said the Las Vegas veterinarian.

Bernstein believes the tightening of the race ''is all about the differences between us on the issues - health care and choice.''

''This is so exciting. I knew this would happen,'' he said. ''Whatever I'm doing, I'm doing right and I'll keep doing it.''

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