LAS VEGAS -- State figures released Monday show Republicans slightly outperformed Democrats in early voting in Nevada, where Republican tea party favorite Sharron Angle is in a dead heat with Majority Leader Harry Reid in the most closely watched Senate race in the U.S.
Republicans would consider it a major victory if a relative political unknown were to defeat the Democrats' influential Senate leader. It is also a test of strength for the conservative-libertarian tea party movement which is backing Angle.
The early voting figures provide only a barometer of party turnout -- not a tally of actual votes -- and a succession of polls have found the candidates running neck and neck. And while the Republicans have a statistical edge in turnout percentage thus far, Democrats kept close in a year when Republicans appear poised to seize control of the House of Representatives and, possibly, the Senate.
According to the secretary of state, Democrats accounted for 162,801 in-person early voters -- or 43 percent of the total -- just over the party's share of registration. The GOP turned out 156,264 early voters, or 41 percent of the total. That's 4 percentage points higher than the party's registration in Nevada.
Democrats held a 21,502-to-19,087 edge in mail-in ballots for the state's two most populous counties, Clark and Washoe. Statewide figures for mail-in ballots were not immediately available.
Together, the final tallies for two weeks of in-person voting and a count of the mail-in ballots for the two counties gave Democrats about a 9,000-voter edge. The slim margin stands out because Democrats hold a 60,000-voter edge in statewide registration, and Republicans typically turn out in higher percentages on Election Day.
Campaign officials on both sides predict a close finish but disagree on the interpretation of the early vote.
In a year when polls show Republicans are highly motivated, Reid spokesman Kelly Steele said Democrats held the Republicans below their average turnout rate for elections in the middle of a president's term, a key measure going into Election Day. Also, because of higher early voting by the Republicans, Steele said a higher Republican turnout on Election Day is less likely. "You can't vote twice," he said.
Republicans credit Reid for a strong get-out-the-vote operation but say the early vote shows Angle has momentum.
A key to winning will be independents, and the early-voting numbers give no hint of which way they will break.
A poll last month conducted for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and KLAS-TV 8NewsNow gave Angle an edge with independents. There are eight candidates on the ballot, which also allows voters to select "None of these candidates."
About 16 percent of the early vote came from voters outside the two major parties.