RENO - The high-stakes election is still a year away, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is already leveling criticism at Republican Sue Lowden, the former state GOP chairwoman, state legislator and Miss America candidate who hopes to unseat him.
Lowden, however, is apparently holding her own against Reid, leading him in mid-October polling. Her problem is the barrage coming from her own party, which remains splintered a year after being soundly beaten at the polls.
Disaffected Republicans who supported U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in last year's presidential election have formed a political action committee to derail the campaign of Lowden, the early GOP front-runner.
Robert Holloway, director of the Fair Nevada Elections PAC, contends Lowden as state chair cheated Paul supporters out of a place at the Republican National Convention last year.
"Sue Lowden basically stole the election for John McCain," said Holloway, 64, a nuclear science consultant from Las Vegas. "We need to elect people who have respect for law and order, and our electoral process."
Holloway said last week's count of missing delegate ballots from the April 2008 state GOP convention supports his group's contention that all three delegates from the state's 2nd Congressional District should have gone to Paul supporters.
The count also bolsters its claim that Lowden abruptly recessed the convention prior to final votes after it appeared Paul would take most of the state's 34 delegates to the national convention, he said.
The PAC also complains the party deteriorated under Lowden's leadership in the last election when President Barack Obama easily captured Nevada and Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., lost, turning a red state blue.
Lowden spokesman Robert Uithoven said the criticism is unfair because Lowden allowed Paul to speak at the state convention and promoted his appearances at party caucuses.
"She has become a target because she's the front-runner. Harry is talking about her, and now a few Ron Paul supporters are talking about her," Uithoven said.
He said the PAC represents just a handful of Republicans and Lowden counts Paul supporters among her backers.
"I think some people want to get stuck reliving the 2008 election cycle," he said.
Lowden, 57, is a former executive vice president of Sahara Hotel and Casino, and a current board member of a casino and investment company that owns the Pioneer Hotel in Laughlin. A former television anchorwoman in Las Vegas, she was Miss New Jersey and second runner-up for Miss America in 1973.
A poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal in October found Lowden faring better against Reid than any other Republican candidate, with 49 percent supporting her and 39 percent favoring Reid.
She also was in a statistical tie with Danny Tarkanian, son of former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, atop a list of nine primary candidates, according to the poll conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc.
The survey showed 23 percent of Republicans favored Lowden and 21 percent backed Tarkanian, with 44 percent undecided.
Political analysts think the opposition from Paul supporters could hurt Lowden in the June 8 primary. They note state Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, was defeated after he chaired the 2008 state GOP convention under Lowden.
"In a primary with lower turnout, if you have a large block of Republicans who are still bitter, I think it could be bad news for her," said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV and a Democrat. "I'm sure it'll make Danny Tarkanian very happy."
Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno and a Republican, said the ballot count validates the Paul backers' long simmering anger over the convention being shut down.
"I think they're going to be a very large problem for her in next year's election," he said.
Lokken also noted that Nevada's Democratic voter registration surged and Republican fundraising dwindled during Lowden's tenure as party chairwoman.
GOP National Committeewoman Heidi Smith of Nevada said she hopes the count of missing ballots brings closure to Paul supporters and the anti-Lowden PAC will "disintegrate."
"I'm hoping the people who are angry will settle down and put their energy toward defeating Harry Reid," she said.
The convention controversy prompted Wayne Terhune, a Reno-area dentist and Paul supporter, to later organize an insurgent state GOP convention, where Paul won most of the national convention delegates and McCain supporter Mike Weber served as chairman.
A Nevada GOP committee appointed another delegation, mostly prominent party regulars and contributors. A key Republican National Committee panel then recommended a compromise list of delegates and said it was troubled by the "ineptness" of the Nevada GOP.
"That's not a commendation for higher office," Terhune said. "I think it'll come back to hurt Sue Lowden to the point where she'll be too weak to win."
Uithoven said frustration over Republicans' dismal 2008 performance at the polls is driving much of the criticism of Lowden.
Already, Reid has lined up some high-profile Republicans to support his re-election, including casino bosses Steve Wynn and Jim Murren, entertainer Wayne Newton, first lady Dawn Gibbons and political consultant Sig Rogich.
Last week, Reid's campaign criticized Lowden after she made light of a 1981 attempted car bombing against him that police called an attempted homicide.
Reid, who faces no serious challenge within his party in his bid for a fifth term, stands to benefit if the GOP sniping continues and Republican candidates beat up on each other in the primary, analysts said.