RENO - Badly outspent and trailing in his own polls by double-digits, Democrat Ed Bernstein insists he's making up ground on the favored Republican John Ensign in Nevada's U.S. Senate race.
But aides to Ensign say their polls continue to show the former GOP congressman with a 20-point lead and that Bernstein's difficulty raising money is a sign his campaign is in trouble.
Bernstein, a millionaire lawyer from Las Vegas, repeated his pledge Thursday to spend whatever it takes of his own money to hold onto the seat being left vacant by retiring Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev.
He said he doesn't believe the casino industry's overwhelming financial support to date for Ensign - the son of a Las Vegas casino owner - will sway the election one way or another.
The gambling industry typically covers its bets with contributions to both party's candidates in Nevada.
But so far, the casinos have contributed more than $300,000 to Ensign and only $24,250 to Bernstein, according to the latest report at the Federal Election Commission.
Overall, Ensign has raised $3.4 million and Bernstein $1.75 million, and nearly half of Bernstein's money has come from his own checkbook.
''There is no question in my mind we are making huge gains as a result of our focus on health care, prescription drugs and other issues,'' Bernstein said Thursday.
''People are starting to understand the differences between John Ensign and myself. As the polls tighten, casinos are going to be supportive of me as well,'' he said.
Ensign came within 428 votes of unseating Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 1998 and announced his candidacy again last year within days after Bryan disclosed his plans to retire.
Republicans nationally consider the race one of their best chances to pick up a seat in the Senate and most polls, including the latest by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, have shown Ensign leading by 20 percentage points or more.
The Nevada Democratic Party commissioned a poll and released new results this week showing Bernstein narrowing the gap to an estimated 14 percent - 49 percent for Ensign and 35 percent for Bernstein.
The poll with a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points was conducted July 16-17 by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin and Associates, an opinion research firm with offices in Santa Monica and Oakland, Calif.
Pollsters did a statewide survey of 400 Nevada voters by randomly dialing phone numbers. The sample included 39 percent each Democrats and Republicans with the remainder non-partisan or registered to a minor party.
''It shows the race has closed and it is closing relatively early,'' said Rory Reid, the chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party and son of Sen. Reid.
The Ensign campaign dismissed the survey, saying their own internal polling continues to show the former congressman with a lead of 20 points or more.
''It is the oldest trick in the book when you have a desperate campaign that is horribly behind and can't raise money,'' said Pete Ernaut, Ensign's campaign chairman.
''Here we have a Democrat who is 20 points down in every legitimate poll in the state and he's unable to raise money in late July, so he cooks a poll,'' he said.
''I've been in political campaigns almost all of my life and the single greatest barometer of how strong a campaign is running is how well you can raise money,'' Ernaut said.
''It is not just the gaming industry. It is generally the prevailing feeling across the board.''
Rory Reid said Ernaut's assessment was ''ridiculous.''
''Ed Bernstein's campaign is largely self-financed. Ed Bernstein does not have to convince himself he is going to win,'' Reid said.
''I'm sure that John Ensign will continue to have a significant fund-raising advantage because he is willing to take money from people Ed Bernstein is not willing to take it from. Special interests aren't going to start pouring money into Ed Bernstein's campaign.''
A veterinarian, Ensign also is a former gambling executive whose father, Mike, is chairman of the Mandalay Resort Group, whose properties include Circus-Circus, Mandalay Bay, Luxor and Excalibur.
The Center for Responsive Politics says that through June 1, Ensign had received $103,300 from the Mandalay Group alone. His next largest contributors were Boyd Gaming, $24,249; Mirage Resorts, $22,500; and Harrah's Entertainment, $20,000.
Bernstein's largest contributors have been lawyers and law firms, totaling $143,150, the non-profit center based in Washington said. Health professionals were next at $45,400.
Bernstein said he has no idea how much money he will end up spending on the race.
''I'll spend whatever I have to win the race, to get my message out,'' he said. ''If my father owned a casino, I'm sure I'd have more money.''