WASHINGTON (CNN) - Danny Tarkanian sailed into Washington this week on a wave of polling data that indicates he - and other Republican Senate prospects - could defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid next year.
Reid is a top target for national Republicans in 2010 - but the GOP faces a big problem: it has not settled on a candidate to challenge the Democratic leader. The GOP's best prospect, Rep. Dean Heller, took a pass on the race.
Now, Tarkanian is one of several Republicans who have either declared their candidacies or are eyeing a challenge to Reid in 2010. As the son of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, the younger Tarkanian has immediate name recognition in the state - and is the frontrunner, at least for now, in a crowded GOP primary field.
The real estate entrepreneur described himself as a "fiscal and social conservative" during a visit to CNN Wednesday, painting Reid as out of touch with Nevada voters. He echoed national Republicans on ideas to reduce the cost of health care, such as tort reform and insurance portability; said the way to revive the economy is to invest in the private sector; and said that the United States needs to stay in Afghanistan to finish the job.
While Tarkanian did not embrace disgraced Sen. John Ensign and embattled Gov. Jim Gibbons, he stated that it would not be right to "turn your back" or "shun" the two highest-ranking Republicans in the state. But, he said, both are "separate from my race."
Reid - who watched the GOP defeat his friend and former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004 - has made it clear in fundraising pitches and private conversations that he is ready for 2010. Reid has $7 million in the bank, and his campaign said the plan is to raise $25 million to make sure he wins a fifth term. A Reid spokesman dismissed Tarkanian's visit and the criticism directed at the majority leader.
"He is one of a dozen Republican candidates filed to run against Sen. Reid," said Reid spokesman Jon Summers. "They have the next year to work through their primary. In the meantime, Sen. Reid is going to keep working to improve the state's economy, help keep people in their homes and create jobs by making Nevada the leader in clean energy."
Tarkanian may lose his frontrunner status once former Nevada Republican Party Chair Sue Lowden formally declares her candidacy, says Nevada political expert Jon Ralston.
"She has a much better profile to beat Harry Reid," Ralston said. "She has to be seen as the favorite in the primary."
The logical way to win the primary is to get more voters to the polls - in which case, Tarkanian's challenge starts on the home front. His mother, Lois, is a Democrat on the Las Vegas City Council. And while Tarkanian assured me that his mother plans to vote for him in the general election, he wasn't counting on her help in nabbing the nomination: "I'm trying to switch her over to vote for me in the primary."
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