CARSON CITY, Nev. — Right wing, left wing, chicken wing. Suddenly, Nevada politics is all about chickens — bad news for the Republican Senate front-runner but a ray of hope for struggling Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
Sue Lowden recently suggested bartering with doctors for medical care — "our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor." The line from the millionaire casino executive and former beauty queen immediately became a late-night joke and YouTube sensation, and upended a GOP race that had been hers to lose.
Democrats set up a website, "Chickens for Checkups," and dispatched a volunteer in a chicken suit to one of her fundraisers. GOP rival Danny Tarkanian circulated a video of her comments and asked if she were the best candidate to take on Reid.
Early voting begins May 22 for the June 8 primary, and the inevitability that was building around Lowden's candidacy has eroded as others in the field of 12 Republicans sense an opening.
And somewhere Reid is cackling.
The Senate majority leader is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents, struggling with low approval ratings in a state that's reeling economically from an unemployment rate of 13.4 percent — well above the national average — and the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation. Infighting among Republicans and the possibility that Lowden could emerge from the crowded primary as a scuffed-up winner would be a blessing for Reid.
"If the November race is about Harry Reid, Republicans win. If it's not about Harry Reid, it's a flip of the coin," said Ryan Erwin, senior adviser to John Chachas, a Wall Street banker who returned to his native state to enter the Republican race.
In discussing health care, Lowden said, "I'm telling you that this works. You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say, 'I'll paint your house.' ... Doctors are very sympathetic people. I'm not backing down from that system."
In a new TV ad, Lowden says her remarks were taken out of context. As photos of Reid and Tarkanian appear behind her, she says, "They want to make this about chickens. That's what's wrong with Washington: lies and dirty tricks."
She had blamed Reid and his allies for putting "barnyard animals into the spotlight."
Reid acknowledges his own vulnerability and has been following a methodical path in pursuing a fifth term. He has raised $16 million, locked in support from powerful unions and casinos, and pushed job and health care issues that he hopes will resonate with voters.
Republican National Committee spokesman Jahan Wilcox said voters care about the ailing economy, not the chicken dispute. He said it would not weaken GOP chances in November.
Along with Lowden, a former state senator, a handful of other candidates have enough funding and organization to have a plausible shot at winning the primary.
Former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, 60, arrived at a rally in March on the back of a rumbling motorcycle, outfitted in black leather. She has the endorsement of a national tea party group and has said her first piece of legislation would be to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law. She's running her campaign out of her home in northern Nevada.
Lawyer and businessman Tarkanian, 48, was a star basketball player at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where he played for his father, legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian. The younger Tarkanian is known for verbal stumbles — he once substituted Reid's name for Ronald Reagan in public remarks.
The wealthy Chachas, 45, blames Washington for economic policies that contributed to Nevada's high unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure rates.
In debates, they've argued over conservative purity, tax-cutting credentials and toughness on illegal immigration.
In the end, Reid's biggest problem might be himself.
A succession of polls show most Nevadans are unhappy with his leadership, and his close association with Obama's agenda has turned off some voters in a state known for moderate politics with a libertarian streak. In a year when voters want change, he has a record in the Senate reaching back to the Reagan years.
"He doesn't listen to any of the little people in Nevada. He's like a prince back there" in Washington, said retiree Joe Jacoby, 66, an independent who stood outside a Reid campaign event last month near his hometown, Gardenerville.
"The country," Jacoby said, "is going socialistic."
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Reid defends his work in Washington and says the economic situation would be worse if not for steps taken by Congress, including the massive stimulus package. He argues that his efforts help his home state.
"It really ... offends me when people say Harry Reid really doesn't know much about Nevada anymore," Reid, who has a residence in his hometown of Searchlight, said at a campaign stop last month.
"Come and see me in Searchlight sometime," he said.
Maintenance worker Neal Tuteur is undecided on how he'll vote in the Republican primary, but his mind is made up about the Senate leader.
"It's time for Harry Reid to leave," he said.