Race in Focus - Hoping for an Ugly Win in Nevada's 3rd District

If you're looking for the race that tells the story of the 2010 campaign cycle, the showdown between Democratic incumbent Rep. Dina Titus and Republican challenger Joe Heck in Nevada's 3rd Congressional District has it all.

Titus is a freshman Democrat who won in a suburban district on Barack Obama's coattails. Heck, a doctor, is an Iraq war veteran who owns a business that does consulting on emergency medical preparedness.

In a race dominated by Titus' votes for the Obama agenda, frustration with the crummy economy and, increasingly, the up-ballot battle between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican challenger, Sharron Angle.

Polls have shown the race in a dead heat all summer with Titus and Heck drawing between 40 percent and 45 percent each - despite Heck's 15-point advantage on name identification in the district. That's an ill omen for Titus so late in the campaign season - well-known incumbents can usually expect to lose the majority of last-minute deciders.

An incumbent who is well known but not well liked is not likely to be an incumbent for long.

The district is shaped like a Y reaching up from the southern tip of the state to take in the suburbs on both sides of Las Vegas. When the 3rd District was created after the 2000 Census it was a booming, slightly Republican-leaning district filled with snowbird retirees and suburbanites fleeing booming Las Vegas.

Now, 70 percent of the mortgages are underwater and the desert is reclaiming some of the suburban sprawl. Other parts are starting to look more like the more urban, less white and less affluent 1st Congressional District - safe Democratic territory represented by Harry Reid in the 1980s.Titus, 60, a political science professor at UNLV who had been in the state Senate since 1989, proves the Obama effect on Congress. Titus had been locked in a tight race with incumbent Republican Rep. Jon Porter. But Obama won the district (which had gone for George W. Bush by 2 points in 2004) by 12 points.

It was similar to Obama's margin in other affluent suburban districts where housing values and economic optimism dove in the fall of 2008. Titus matched her message to Obama's pitch in the close of the campaign and managed a 5-point win after trailing narrowly throughout the campaign.Titus (whose first name is short for Constadina) voted for the Obama stimulus, the "cap and trade" global warming bill now stalled in the Senate and for Obamacare. She is tart tongued - having famously dropped an F bomb on Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House Democratic caucus, telling her colleagues that if they didn't get a handle on the simmering anger in the electorate that the would all be "f---ed." She believes women have a right to elective abortions.

Heck, 49, is a conservative Catholic from Henderson who narrowly lost his state Senate seat in the Obama wave of 2008. He calls his congressional campaign "Operation New Direction" and heavily touts his medical background and military experience (he is a colonel in the Army Reserve).

Titus has been trying to take on the mantle of "foreclosure fighter" and her first ad features voter testimonials to her efforts to "fight big banks" and keep people in their homes. But the Las Vegas media market is getting to be a real shootout as Reid and Angle start spending their millions attacking each other and outside groups spend big to try to shape the election.

As of the end of June, Titus had raised $1.7 million - with heavy donations from plaintiffs' lawyers and casino employees. Heck had raised a million less by the same point in time, but has reportedly ramped up his fundraising substantially since officially securing his party's nomination in June. It would be a lot of money for most midterm years, but it can't compete with the bales of cash being dropped on the district by Reid and Angle.

And the 3rd District is the battleground for fight between Reid and Angle. While the 2nd District is more reliably Republican and the 1st is Democratic turf, the 3rd is the state's real swing district. Reid and Angle have a big interest in how the race between Titus and Heck is going. And for the House candidates, the battle between Reid and Angle and the struggle between Reid's son, Rory, and Republican Brian Sandoval for governor will largely determine which voters turn out on Election Day.

Titus is hoping that the elder Reid succeeds in branding Angle a Tea Party radical. Just as she did in 2008, Titus could attach herself to a winner and stick her Republican foe with an unpopular associate. Heck is looking for Angle to keep the race close and for the younger Reid, a commissioner of Clark County, which encompasses the district, to continue his dreadful showing in the gubernatorial campaign.

Titus and the elder Reid are said to have a long rivalry in Nevada politics, but she'll no doubt be rooting for him like never before this year.Like Reid, Titus has little hope of convincing Nevadans that her votes were right or win them back on a personal level. Both she and Reid have only one path to holding on to their seats - bashing their opponents so thoroughly that conservative-leaning independent voters stay home or pick Nevada's unique ballot option "none of these candidates" for her race.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.