HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) — Rep. Shelley Berkley ended her speech at a recent gathering of union members and retirees here by bringing up a potentially risky subject — her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner.
Lehrner was supposed to be an albatross in the seven-term congresswoman's attempt to replace Republican Dean Heller in the U.S. Senate, because his involvement in a kidney transplant program that Berkley pushed to save sparked a House Ethics Committee investigation of the congresswoman. But Berkley focused instead on health care, luck and love.
Fourteen years ago, she was introduced to a man a friend described as "a Jewish doctor with money." Berkley said Lehrner asked her if she'd test a new machine at his office, telling her: "It'll only take five minutes and you won't have to take your clothes off."
The machine found that Berkley, 61, had osteoporosis, a dangerous bone condition. Not every American has access to the health care that might have caught the condition so early.
"I don't think, in this country, you need to be dating a Jewish doctor with money to get good health care," she thundered to cheers.
It's a powerful argument in a tight race for Senate, in a state that's home to the nation's highest unemployment rate and where 12 percent of the population is over age 65. Nevada is key, too, to the wider national race for control of the Democratic-led Senate. Republicans need to gain four seats to win control, a task that seemed well within reach a few months ago but has lately grown uncertain. GOP leaders have high hopes that Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney will be a top-of-the-ticket draw for Nevada's high Mormon population.
For Democrats, Heller's seat is one of the party's best chances to oust a GOP incumbent and hold control of the Senate. Heller, 52, was appointed to the seat in 2011, after former Sen. John Ensign resigned amid an ethics investigation into his affair with the wife of a staffer.
The contest is also becoming a national test of which issue is more potent: Ethics or Republicans' attempts to remake Medicare.
Berkley has attacked Heller for backing Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's Medicare proposals. Heller has blasted the Democratic congresswoman on ethics and as a rubber-stamp for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Each side has responded to their perceived weakness by trying to turn the tables on their opponent. Heller and his backers have aired ads accusing Berkley of voting to cut $1 trillion from Medicare. Berkley has fired back with ads trying to tie Heller to a pair of Nevada political scandals to which he has the most tenuous links.
Democrats contend the pressure is on Heller, who last week in Washington sharply criticized Mitt Romney's comments about Americans who don't pay income taxes and called Berkley "the most corrupt and unethical person I've ever met." His campaign refused to make him available for an interview.
Pete Ernaut, a Republican consultant, noted that Nevada is closely divided.
"In most of the big, statewide races, if you have two good candidates who are well-funded, they're going to be in a close, competitive race," Ernaut said.
He added that Berkley's ethics issue might not seem that outrageous to many Nevadans. "The average voter has built up a bit of a callous to those things."
The contest exemplifies the divide in Nevada politics. Like Romney, Heller is Mormon from the mostly-rural north that dominated state politics for decades. Berkley, who is Jewish and the daughter of a waiter at the Sands Casino, is a feisty resident of the more labor-friendly and Democratic metropolis to the south whose growth turned Nevada into a swing state.
Eric Herzik, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada in Reno, recalled that, in last year's Nevada Days parade, Heller rode a horse. Berkley rode a red 1966 Camaro.
"This is just Nevada in a nutshell," Herzik said.
The campaign has taken a nasty turn as the two candidates, buttressed by millions in outside spending, have aired sharp and personal ads. Berkley's ads accuse Heller of being in cahoots with corporate interests who want to slash Medicare and end with the phrase: "He's never been on your side." Heller's ads have honed in on Berkley's ethics woes, with one ending: "Shelley Berkley: A history of public corruption."
Heller hasn't entirely ridden Romney's coattails. Last week, he bluntly disavowed the nominee's secretly-recorded remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes. Potential Republican voters, after all, are part of that 47 percent— and in Nevada, they probably are among the state's 12.1 percent unemployed.
"My mom was a school cafeteria cook, so I have a very different view of the world," Heller told reporters in the Capitol. "I do believe the federal government has certain responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is building bridges and roads, and national defense, but I also believe in a safety net for individuals who need the help, so that's why I would respectfully disagree with the comments that he made."
The contest is so tight that, earlier this month, the two campaigns were arguing whether a small Filipino Veterans Group that endorsed Heller actually existed. Both campaigns expect it to remain close. Berkley's supporters are banking on Democrats' edge in organizing and President Obama's persistent lead here to bring enough voters to the polls to let her move up.
Heller's backers expect some Obama voters in the pivotal swing county of Washoe, in the north of the state, to split their ticket and support the Republican senator.
In an interview, Berkley said she was confident voters would back her because she wants to protect Medicare and the middle class. She dismissed the ethics issue, noting that all of the state's congressional representatives, including Heller, joined her in trying to preserve the program.
"I know, when this investigation is over, that everyone is going to know that my only concern is for the safety of patients in Nevada," Berkley said.
Herzik said the competitiveness of the race is a testament to Berkley's skill at responding to the ethics charges. But, he added, it could also represent a troubling trend for Republicans nationally -- swing state voters soundly rejecting the congressional Republican agenda to which Berkley has tied Heller.
"If she wins," Herzik said, "it's a warning sign."