U.S. Senate contest tops Nevada races in 2000

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Nevadans will start the next century with a big election year, voting for president, filling one U.S. Senate and two U.S. House seats, and deciding crucial legislative races.

State Supreme Court races and controversial ballot questions, including one on medical marijuana and possibly another on casino taxes, also will draw Nevadans to the polls in 2000.

The state has no presidential preference primary, only the November 2000 general election balloting for the nation's chief executive. But early polling shows Texas Gov. George W. Bush with a double-digit lead over all Republican and Democratic rivals.

A recent poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and KTNV-TV, Channel 13, showed Bush with a 57-18 percent margin over Arizona Sen. John McCain, his nearest GOP rival; and Vice President Al Gore with a 51-31 percent edge over former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

In a matchup between Bush, Gore and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, Bush had a 47-35 percent margin over Gore. Buchanan had 6 percent.

Presidential preferences of Nevada's major party political activists should emerge early in the year at party caucuses and conventions - at least for the Democrats.

GOP Gov. Kenny Guinn is heading up the Nevada campaign for Bush. Several top Democrats are backing Gore for the Democratic nomination - among them Sen. Reid, the minority whip in the U.S. Senate.

In the U.S. Senate race, former GOP Rep. John Ensign is trying again after losing to incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., by just 428 votes in 1998. His likely Democratic opponent is political newcomer and wealthy Las Vegas lawyer Bernstein.

The conservative Ensign is running hard and says he'll have about $2 million in contributions and commitments by January.

Bernstein, has been lining up support and contributions since fellow Democrat Frankie Sue Del Papa dropped out of the Senate contest. He hopes to have $350,000 in contributions by January and is willing to put up $1 million of his own money.

By the time the smoke clears next November and the race is decided, the total pricetag could top the $10 million mark. Ensign already has said his campaign alone could run $5 million to $6 million.

Ensign got an early start, jumping into the race last February. Bernstein is expected to formally announce after the start of the year that he's running for the seat incumbent Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., is vacating.

The late-November poll for the Review-Journal and KTNV-TV showed Ensign with a 53-32 percent advantage over Bernstein.

In the race for Nevada's U.S. House Dist. 1 seat, Democratic first-termer Shelley Berkley has a big fund-raising edge but would get a strong challenge from Republican Jon Porter, a state senator from Boulder City, if both advance from their respective Sept. 5 primaries to the general election.

The Review-Journal-KTNV poll shows Berkley leading with 45 percent to Porter's 31 percent.

The presidential, U.S. Senate and House surveys of more than 600 likely voters were conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. The presidential poll had a 4-5 percentage point error margin, the Senate poll had a 4 percentage point margin and the House survey had a 6 percentage point error margin.

In Nevada's U.S. House Dist. 2 race, GOP incumbent Jim Gibbons seems rock-solid. There are no prominent Democrats whose names have surfaced yet in the contest, although recruiting efforts are underway - and Democratic leaders say they expect to have a strong contender.

Gibbons considered a run for Bryan's Senate seat but opted to seek a third term after getting encouragement from House leadership.

In doing so, he also scored big points with GOP leaders at the national and state level by averting the certainty of a bloody Republican primary battle against Ensign.

In the Nevada Legislature, all 42 Assembly seats and 10 of the 21 state Senate seats are up - and since this is the key pre-reapportionment election cycle, the campaigns should be exciting.

Whoever's elected in 2000 will have the job of reapportioning legislative and congressional districts during the 2001 session. And that's the way the way the lines will remain for a decade.

Republicans now have a 12-9 margin in the Senate, and on the basis of numbers, the GOP has an edge in staying in control. Each party has five incumbents up for re-election, but among the holdovers who won't have to run until 2002 there are seven GOPs and four Democrats.

In the Assembly, Democrats have a commanding 28-14 voting edge going into the 2000 elections. But the GOP isn't conceding the lower house, and plans a big effort to weaken the Democrats' grip.

Nevada voters also will see numerous ballot questions on the 2000 ballot - possibly including a casino tax hike proposal from state Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas.

Neal lost his 1999 legislative effort to boost the tax paid by the clubs - at 6.25 percent one of the lowest such taxes in the nation. Afterwards, he promised to circulate petitions to qualify the issue for the 2000 ballot.

A medical marijuana question already is on the ballot. If approved, Nevadans will be able to get marijuana to deal with catastrophic illnesses such as cancer or AIDS.

Other possible ballot questions could deal with campaign contribution reforms and a business profits tax to provide money for education.

Other statewide races include contests for three of the seven Nevada Supreme Court seats. The open seats include two that were filled in 1998 for the first time as the Supreme Court expanded from five members.

While no big issues or controversies have emerged yet, Nevada has had many noisy, nasty high court campaigns in recent years.


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