HENDERSON, Nevada -- Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's chances for six more years in Washington may be like tossing dice in a casino, even if he has made headway against Republican challenger Sharron Angle in a state with the nation's highest rate of joblessness.
Reid holds a slight lead over Angle, a favorite of the conservative small government, anti-tax tea party movement, in the latest polling, thanks in part to her unsteady performance since winning the June primary and to Democratic ads portraying her as an extremist. Video of Angle scurrying away from reporters has mixed with television commercials of older voters upset about her call to phase out Social Security and Medicare.
But an internal memo obtained by The Associated Press says Reid has a "a serious problem" with voters frustrated with the economy and "receives a great deal of blame." The July 15 memo is based on polling research conducted for Patriot Majority, a union-funded group that is running TV ads against Angle.
The race is wide open, the memo concludes, despite Reid's improved standing and voters' alarm over some of Angle's positions.
"An even playing field is an improvement for Reid, as earlier surveys indicated a much more difficult path to re-election," the memo says. The winner in November will be the candidate "who makes the more persuasive case that he, or she, is more dependable and can be counted on to deliver for Nevada in these tough economic times."
Republicans have made Reid a major target in the upcoming November election when control of Congress will be at stake. They hope to repeat their success from the 2004 elections when Reid's predecessor as Senate Democratic leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, lost his seat in South Dakota.
When asked about his standing in the race, Reid on Saturday said he didn't pay attention to fluctuating polls and only cared about the outcome on Election Day.
"The No. 1 problem we have in Nevada is jobs," the four-term senator said.
Nevada's unemployment rate of 14.2 percent is the highest on record in the once-booming western state and well above the national average of 9.5 percent. A record number of home foreclosures also has rocked the state, as has a decline in tourism -- the life blood of Nevada's economy -- during the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Voters fault the party in power for the stubborn economic downturn. In Nevada, that's President Barack Obama, who won the state two years ago, and the Democrats who control Congress, led by Senate Majority Leader Reid.
Republican Woody Stroupe, 72, a Las Vegas retiree, says Reid and Democrats in Washington are failing to deal with runaway deficits and illegal immigration. He wants a conservative in the Senate who will support lower taxes.
Reid "is the most powerful man in the Senate. Look at the results," Stroupe said, citing the sour economy.
Reid is struggling to find a convincing message on the economy, particularly one that will resonate with independents and moderates who probably will decide the race. "We have a lot of work ahead of us," he told supporters this month.
Reid has made a massive development on the Las Vegas strip a foundation block of his re-election drive. One of the senator's early campaign ads featured an endorsement from MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren, who credits Reid with using his clout to save the CityCenter project when its financing nearly collapsed during the recession. Reid "called every CEO of every bank that I know," Murren says.
But Angle has said she wouldn't have picked up the phone because private projects must succeed on their own. That reflects her general position that government should cut regulation and keep its distance from business, and she say's Reid's actions for CityCenter might have cost other casinos business.
Angle is trying to recover from a rocky, sometimes embarrassing stretch in which she's attempted to transform her mom-and-pop primary campaign into a multimillion-dollar general election operation. She's hired big-name consultants and startled Reid's campaign by raising more than he did between April and June, $2.6 million to $2.4 million. Reid still holds a commanding financial edge overall -- $9 million to her $1.8 million in cash on hand.
Among some of the images in news reports and Democratic ads that Nevadans have seen of Angle in recent weeks:
--Angle saying, "I'm not in the business of creating jobs." She later explained that private businesses create jobs and government is responsible for nurturing an environment for companies to grow.
--Angle backtracking after referring to a $20 billion victims' compensation fund for the Gulf oil spill set up by BP as a "slush fund." On a Nevada campaign stop this month, Obama ridiculed her, saying "she favors an approach that's even more extreme than the Republicans we've got in Washington."
"Sharron's first six weeks have been atrocious. I think she would admit to that," said Danny Tarkanian, a Republican who sought the party's Senate nomination. But "we are still a long way from the election. There is a lot of time."
To Las Vegas resident Bob Harrington, 63, a Democrat who owns a direct-mail franchise, Angle is "frightening."
"She's just so extreme. If she was in Afghanistan, she'd be a leader of the Taliban. She wants to go back to the 14th century," says Harrington, who plans to vote for Reid because "he brings home the bacon."
Her decision after winning the nomination to limit interviews to mostly conservative media outlets -- many outside the state -- has opened her to criticism that she fears scrutiny and is unprepared for Washington.
Even some supporters are anxious for Angle to retool her strategy to make her more visible in Nevada, where the former Reno legislator remains little known in the populous Las Vegas region.
"We are the ones that need to hear from her," said Debbie Landis, a prominent tea party organizer in Nevada. "No amount of adoring fans in New Hampshire will get her elected."
Angle has reshaped her message in hopes of appealing to a broader audience, though she says her positions have not changed.
She no longer talks about phasing out Social Security and Medicare; she says they should be "personalized." She launched a new website that recast or deleted many of her earlier positions, such as eliminating the federal Education Department and supporting the use of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a site to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, a widely unpopular idea in the state.
Reid's campaign later posted the website's original language, which set off a brief legal spat.