WASHINGTON The Senate race in Nevada, which late polling suggests is a dead heat, has become a central battlefield in the midterm elections with backers of both parties pouring money into last-minute barrages of television attack ads.
Pro-Republican organizations like American Crossroads -- which counts Republican consultant Karl Rove as one of its founders -- have been investing in TV ads criticizing Nevada's Democratic incumbent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Crossroads' latest spot on October 17 alleged that "Harry Reid's Nevada" is suffering America's highest foreclosure and unemployment rates.
Voters will fill 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate on November 2, and a Republican victory in Nevada would not only boost the party's drive for control of the Senate but let conservatives boast that they toppled one of the most powerful Democrats in America.
Meanwhile, an independent group sympathetic to Democrats, the Patriot Majority PAC, has made the contest between Reid and his Tea Party-backed opponent Sharron Angle "our principal focus," according to Craig Varoga, a political consultant and one of the group's organizers.
The Patriot Majority is also putting much of its money into attack ads, Varoga says. "We have focused on trying to expose Angle's radical beliefs," he told Reuters.
President Barack Obama plunges into the fight on Friday when he is due to campaign with Reid in Nevada, part of Obama's campaign swing through five western states.
A Democratic source familiar with the situation said the Patriot Majority is the principal independent group backing Reid and will likely spend about $5 million on his behalf once the race is run.
A Crossroads group recently reported spending at least $1.2 million attacking Reid.
While the Patriot Majority group appears to be the only big independent group supporting Reid, Democratic and Republican operatives involved in the Nevada race say Angle is receiving support from other independent committees besides Crossroads, including at least one Tea Party group.
Jonathan Collegio, communications director for the Crossroads Groups, said that his organizations have been sponsoring TV ads in Nevada criticizing Reid and the Democrats since Angle won her primary race in June.
At the time, she entered the general election campaign "without resources," he said, meaning that support from independent groups has been critical in boosting her campaign.
Besides the television ads, Collegio said Crossroads is also sponsoring get-out-the-vote campaigns in support of Angle during the final days of the campaign.
The amount of money being spent in Nevada pales in comparison to election-related outlays in California and Colorado media markets. But TV airtime is relatively cheap in Nevada, and all three states have Democratic senators in difficult re-election campaigns.
A Democratic source said Crossroads groups alone recently spent $3.2 million in support of Republican candidate Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, another expensive media state. Toomey has additional independent support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Club for Growth, a conservative group Toomey once led.
But Nevada is in the spotlight.
"Harry Reid's scalp is the biggest scalp out there," said Rick Wilson, a conservative political consultant who also is working with independent campaign groups on midterm races. "Decapitating the Senate majority leader is a bargain if you can do it."
(Editing by Jim Marshall)