For only the second time in 58 years, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate is on the political ropes. Mean-tempered Sen. Harry Reid (D.-Nev.), who is seeking his fifth term next year, would lose to either of his best-known Republican opponents if the election were held today. According to a just-completed Mason Dixon poll, real estate developer and fellow GOP hopeful Danny Tarkanian is beating Reid by 48% to 43%.

The apparently good chances of deposing Reid, a fixture in Nevada politics since he was elected lieutenant governor at age 30 in 1970, have focused increasing attention on the Republican nomination battle. For weeks, it appeared that Lowden, a performer in Bob Hope’s USO tours in the 1960s, was the big favorite to take on Reid. But in recent weeks conservative eyebrows have been raised over some of Lowden’s past stands and the momentum has been shifting toward Tarkanian, son of the legendary basketball coach for the University of Nevada (Las Vegas).

In a recent television interview on Channel 13 (Las Vegas), Lowden hinted that she was amenable to more big-spending pork when she attacked Reid by saying, “What has he delivered for Nevada? … Lyndon Johnson gave Texas NASA. Robert Byrd is bringing the CIA to West Virginia.” Lowden has also admitted she voted for and contributed to Reid “early on.” In addition, Lowden was one of 11 Nevada delegates to the Republican National Convention in 1996. With fellow delegate and then State Assembly Co-Speaker Lynn Hettrick, then-State Sen. Lowden said that “the national party ought to follow Nevada’s lead and take abortion out of the platform.” Nevada Republicans, after a heated debate at the state convention in Reno earlier that month, had struck the abortion plank from the state platform.

Tarkanian is a solid opponent of earmarks and opposes abortion in all circumstances except the life of the mother. He lost a tight race against a longtime Democratic state senator in 2004 in a district that George W. Bush was losing by 20 percentage points. Two years later, he waged a strong-but-unsuccessful bid against Secretary of State Ross Miller, son of popular former Democratic Gov. (1988-98) Bob Miller. But the activist following he attracted in the two losing campaigns has clearly laid the groundwork for a strong Tarkanian candidacy in 2010.