RENO, Nev. - After coming within 428 votes of knocking off the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate two years ago, most thought former Republican Rep. John Ensign would trounce his Democratic challenger for Nevada's U.S. Senate seat this time around.
''Nobody believed I had a chance,'' Ed Bernstein said.
But a 20 percentage point lead in the polls has been cut in half. And the combination of a surging Al Gore and Bernstein's continued attack on Ensign's staunch anti-abortion views makes Democrats think they might hold onto retiring Sen. Richard Bryan's seat.
''I don't think Ensign should be buying any real estate in Washington yet,'' said Rory Reid, the chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party and son of Sen. Harry Reid, who Ensign nearly beat in 1998.
The contest pits the conservative Ensign, a veterinarian and son of a casino mogul, against the liberal Bernstein, a Las Vegas personal injury lawyer who has spent about $1 million of his own money in his first foray into politics.
Bernstein has been saying for a long time that he would be the one whose victory swings the Senate back to a Democratic majority in November. But few paid him any attention until recently.
''Other than being a lawyer who advertised on TV, people didn't know much about Bernstein,'' said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason Dixon Polling in Washington D.C.
Many who knew of him, didn't like what they saw.
''He's seen as an ambulance-chasing lawyer,'' said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. ''Think of all your lawyer jokes. And he is from the part of the legal profession that is in a sense the most vilified.''
Bernstein, 51, makes no apologies. Raised in a lower-middle class Jewish family, he said he decided to become a lawyer at 19 when his first wife was killed in a traffic accident.
''I had to go identify the body,'' Bernstein said.
''I knew that day I wanted to be a lawyer to fight big companies that build unsafe cars. If that is a liability to stand up and fight for people who are underdogs, then I am proud of that.''
Bernstein, who studies Eastern religions and used to wear a pony tail, once described himself as a cross between Madonna and the Dalai Lama - people he says search for ways to improve.
Bernstein hasn't stopped looking for ways to improve his campaign standing. He led an entourage of senior citizens on a bus trip to Tijuana, Mexico to buy prescription drugs for a fraction of what they cost in the United States.
In July, two guards from an armored car company delivered $100,000 to Bernstein outside a Reno drug company. He dumped the cash on a table, saying it equaled the amount Ensign has taken from the pharmaceutical industry.
Bernstein says he decided to run largely because of difficulties with HMOs and insurance companies in obtaining health care for his 11-year-old daughter who has an incurable illness.
''For 11 years I've been fighting with them over care for my daughter. It is difficult for me and I have a law firm and do this for a living,'' he said.
''My wife Nancy told me to stop complaining and do something about it.''
While Bernstein is a political novice, Ensign is one of the Republican Party's rising young stars.
At 36, he won his first House seat in the GOP wave that made Newt Gingrich speaker in 1994. He had been running for the U.S. Senate - first for Reid's seat and now Bryan's - for the better part of three years when Bernstein announced his candidacy in March.
''Republicans are not only excited about him, they are counting on him,'' said Ryan Erwin, executive director of the Nevada GOP.
Ensign's bid to unseat Reid went to a recount that stretched into December.
Bryan announced his retirement plans two months later and the next day Ensign was back on the campaign trail, touted as the GOP's best chance nationally to turn an open Democratic Senate seat their way in November.
Ensign's prospects soared when the Democrats' leading contender, Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, dropped out of the race last fall.
It was afterward that Bernstein visited Democratic leaders in Washington to scout out prospects for a campaign of his own.
''People had written off Nevada,'' said Bernstein, recalling getting little attention during his visit.
Since then, he's pressed for prescription drug reform, hammered on Ensign's support for a constitutional ban on abortion and reminded voters about Ensign being included on the League of Conservation Voters ''Dirty Dozen'' list in 1996 - reserved for the members of Congress with the worst voting records on the environment.
Last month, Bernstein returned to a hero's welcome at party headquarters in Washington.
''Eight different U.S. senators stopped by to say hello and ask what they could do to help,'' he said. ''What a difference.''
An independent poll last month showed Bernstein pulling to within 11 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. The poll conducted by Mason Dixon Polling for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and lasvegas.com showed Ensign leading 50 percent to 39 percent.
''I don't know that Ensign needs to be shooting up the warning flares and getting out the life boats just yet. He still has a double digit lead,'' said Brad Coker, managing director for Mason Dixon Polling in Washington D.C.
Ensign insisted after last time's near miss, that he'll run the entire campaign as if he were 10 points behind.
''I've said all along I don't know how close it will be but it certainly will be close,'' he said.
Democrats say Bernstein is within striking distance.
''If it's not a dead heat statistically now, it will be in a couple of days,'' insisted Jim Jordan, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is running ads now on Bernstein's behalf. He attributed the swing to the abortion issue.
Ann Thompson, chairman of Nevada Republicans for Pro-Choice, agreed.
''I think personally this issue is the most important issue anywhere in this country right now,'' Thompson said.
Bernstein said the race has become a referendum on abortion rights and the pending vacancies on a Supreme Court that could revisit the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
''Two people have run against me before on this issue and it never hurt me. I think frankly, people know where they stand on it. A lot of people are just tired of having it shoved down their throat,'' he said.
''If you run on it, it hurts you no matter what side you are on.''
Coker, the pollster, said Bernstein could overplay the abortion issue.
''Abortion is a double-edged sword. You play that card to some extent to rally your base. But using it as a rallying cry to woo the masses might be a little risky in Nevada,'' he said.
Democrats say Gore's resurgence is helping their candidates everywhere, including Nevada, where local party leaders once worried that George W. Bush's coattails would help Nevada Republicans.
Herzik said Bernstein has found ''some effective attack points.
''That has helped close it, but I don't think it is going to close a whole lot more,'' he said.
''Nevada is still a fairly conservative state and Ensign is perceived as being closer to the average Nevadan.''
Bernstein will have trouble winning the level of support Reid did last time from both labor and rural parts of Nevada, Herzik said.
Nevada GOP Chairman Bob Seal said the Las Vegas lawyer will have a hard time with ''the conservative Democrats in the north.''
Ensign's campaign director Peter Ernaut put it another way:
''A personal injury attorney with a pony tail would rank in the rural counties somewhere between claim jumper and cattle rustler.''