RENO - On the campaign trail for the U.S. Senate for nearly three years, former Republican Rep. John Ensign coasted to victory Tuesday in a GOP primary that was merely a formality in his bid to replace retiring Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev.
Ensign was garnering nearly nine out of every 10 votes cast in the primary - 88 percent with almost three-fourths of the precincts reporting.
One of the challengers, Richard Hamzik, was battling ''None of the Above'' for second place, each with about 5 percent of the vote, and Fernando Platin Jr. had 1 percent.
Ensign didn't waste any time campaigning against his little-known Republican challengers, instead setting his sights on Ed Bernstein, the only Democrat in a race GOP leaders consider one of their best chances nationally to turn a formerly Democratic seat their way.
''We've been so focussed on the general election that we haven't even paid that much attention to the primary,'' Ensign said.
''But you should never take any race for granted. The stronger you do in the primary, the better off you are. It's good to be up above 85 percent,'' he said after claiming victory Tuesday night.
Hamzik, a Gardnerville circuit-design consultant, said he was a libertarian at heart who didn't want Ensign to go unchallenged. Platin of Henderson didn't mount any visible campaign and his telephone has been disconnected.
Ensign, a staunch conservative who is a Las Vegas veterinarian and the son of a casino owner, came within 428 votes of defeating Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in 1998.
The margin of less than one-tenth of 1 percent statewide was one of the narrowest in Nevada history. Ensign demanded a recount and the election didn't become official until December.
''This is a little easier on your nerves,'' Ensign said from campaign headquarters in Las Vegas where his supporters gathered Tuesday night to celebrate with balloons, streamers and submarine sandwiches.
''I've had two nail-biters, in 1994 and 1998 - one that came out good and one that came out not so good,'' he said in reference to a narrow win in his first House race six years ago.
Two months after Reid claimed the Senate win in December 1998, Bryan announced on Feb. 19, 1999, his plans to retire at the end of this term. A day later Ensign was back running for the Senate.
''Believe me, we are counting the days to the end,'' Ensign said.
''This campaign has really flown by, but to say I'm looking forward to the end of it is an understatement. One way or another, it is my last one for a long, long time,'' Ensign said.
The overwhelming favorite based on his strong showing against Reid, Ensign led Bernstein by as much as 20 percent in early polls this summer.
But the former congressman doesn't expect that to hold up in November, partly because party registration in Nevada is virtually even.
''I've said all along I don't know how close it will be but it certainly will be close. A landslide in Nevada is 10 points. So I've said all along that would be about the best we could hope for,'' Ensign said.
''He has a lot of personal money and personal money can but a lot of stuff on television.''
Bernstein, a millionaire who has advertised his law practice on television in Nevada for years, has said he will spend whatever it takes to get his message out in the general election.
''I won't have the kind of financial resources Ensign does,'' Bernstein said.
Through June, Ensign had raised $3.4 million and Bernstein $1.75 million, and nearly half of Bernstein's money had come from his own checkbook.
In recent weeks, Bernstein has emphasized his pro-choice views versus Ensign's stance against all government-funded abortions. Bernstein said he think he's making up ground and probably only trails now by about 10 percentage points
'''We're ahead of where I thought we'd be. I think we clearly have the momentum. I think Labor Day is when the election really starts,'' Bernstein said.
He made up his mind to run on his 50th birthday, Sept. 9, 1999.
''Since then I've been working 20 hours a day, six days a week and it's starting to pay off,'' he said.
''My task has always been to go out and let them know I was somebody different than just a lawyer on TV.''
Ensign 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.
Casinos have contributed more than $300,000 to Ensign and only $24,250 to Bernstein, the latest Federal Election Commission report shows.
The Center for Responsive Politics says that through June 1, Ensign had received $103,300 from the Mandalay Group. His next largest contributors were Boyd Gaming, $24,249; Mirage Resorts, $22,500; and Harrah's Entertainment, $20,000.
One of Ensign's biggest challenges has been to distance himself from GOP leaders in the Senate who are pushing efforts to build a high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain northwest of Las Vegas.
Ensign maintains Nevada needs a Republican to reason with the GOP sponsors of the bill and help turn some Republicans against the measure. He says Reid already has persuaded most Senate Democrats to oppose the bill.
But Democrats say Nevada's Democratic senators and a Democratic presidential administration are the only things that have kept the bill from passing to date. They say electing another Republican to the Senate will undermine the effort to keep the waste repository out of the state.
''We are going to beat that drum from today until Election Day,'' said Rory Reid, chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party and the son of Sen. Reid.