WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is fighting for his political life against a Republican "Tea Party" candidate in Nevada in one of the most closely watched U.S. elections this year, a Reuters/Ipsos poll said on Tuesday.
Among America's most powerful politicians, Reid finds himself locked in a close contest at home, leading 46 percent to 44 percent among likely voters over Sharron Angle, a former substitute schoolteacher who was almost unknown until several months ago.
Tea Party-backed candidates like Angle have done well in Republican primaries this year with calls for lower taxes and smaller government. The Tea Party movement is a loose-knit group of Americans concerned about government spending and debt who are proving to be influential in this unpredictable election season.
The tough race faced by veteran Reid highlights the difficulties for incumbents of both parties at the November 2 congressional elections and the dangers for Democrats like him who are closely identified with President Barack Obama's policies.
Reid's lead in the poll was within the margin of error for likely voters of 4.6 percentage points, making his position even more tenuous.
Americans on November 2 will choose 435 members of the House of Representatives and 37 of the 100-member U.S. Senate. Republicans anticipate big gains and need to pick up 39 seats to win the House and 10 seats for a Senate majority.
The sputtering U.S. economy is far and away the most important issue in Nevada, with 76 percent of those surveyed citing it as an important topic and only 20 percent saying Nevada is heading in the right direction.
Nevada's jobless rate in July was 14.3 percent -- much higher than the national figure -- and the state has suffered from home foreclosures and bankruptcies.
Reid has been the lead advocate in the Senate for Obama's ambitious agenda, including policies that are not viewed favorably by many Americans, such as the healthcare overhaul and $814 billion economic stimulus plan.
Among registered voters, Reid is seen as better than Angle on a range of qualities. By a 48 percent to 37 percent margin, Reid is seen as someone who "understands the economic issues Nevada faces." A 56-30 percent margin said he is "the best person to help generate jobs in Nevada."
But the poll also found that registered voters believe Reid, by a 47 percent to 33 percent margin, is "part of the problem with politics right now in this country." Among likely voters the margin on this issue widened to 53-29 percent.
"This is the one issue on which Angle really has an advantage over Reid," said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark. "She is much less likely to be seen as part of the problem. I think this underlines the precarious nature of his lead over Angle."
Both candidates are seen as likely to "say anything to win votes."
Angle has been criticized by the Reid camp for what it says are far-right positions on wanting to privatize Social Security and being soft on domestic violence.
The poll reflected some shifts on the question of Angle's support from the Tea Party. In late July, 60 percent said her Tea Party support made no difference to their likelihood of supporting her. Now 51 percent say the same, and those people have divided evenly between "less" and "more" likely to support
"In essence, fewer people are now unsure what they think about Angle," said Clark.
What this means, she said, is that Angle is establishing where she stands on the issues and is raising her profile effectively.
In the race to replace unpopular Jim Gibbons as governor of Nevada, Republican Brian Sandoval has widened his lead over Democrat Rory Reid.
Sandoval leads Reid by 60 percent to 31 percent, the poll found, up from 50 percent to 39 percent from the early August survey.
Nevada appears ready to say goodbye to gaffe-prone Republican Governor Gibbons with 63 percent disapproving of his job performance and only 29 percent approving.
The Ipsos poll of 600 registered Nevada voters, of which 463 said they are likely to vote, was conducted Friday through Sunday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points among registered voters and 4.6 percent among likely voters.