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Posted at 8:25 AM ET, 02/15/2011

Dean Heller poll shows 15 point lead over John Ensign in Nevada

By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake

Nevada Rep. Dean Heller holds a 15-point edge over embattled Sen. John Ensign in a hypothetical 2012 GOP primary matchup, according to a poll conducted for the congressman's campaign late last month.

Heller takes 53 percent to Ensign's 38 percent in the survey, which was conducted by well-regarded GOP pollster Dave Sackett from Jan. 18-20.

The guts of the poll show little better news for Ensign, who has struggled to recover from an extramarital affair with the wife of his former chief of staff and a looming Senate ethics investigation about whether he acted inappropriately in trying to secure lobbying work for the man once he left the Senator's office.

Among self-identified conservatives, Heller takes a whopping 62 percent, and he leads Ensign by a two-to-one margin among "extremely conservative" voters. Those voters, of course, tend to comprise a large portion of any Republican primary electorate.

Even in a crowded Republican primary field where, theoretically, the anti-Ensign vote would be fractured, Heller still maintains a 39 percent to 23 percent lead over the incumbent. Danny Tarkanian, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2010, received 17 percent while 2010 Senate nominee Sharron Angle won 14 percent. Businessman John Chachas took 3 percent.

"Strongly paralleling the untenable situation that faced former Gov. Jim Gibbons in 2010, a plurality of likely Republican primary voters in the state of Nevada believe that Sen. Ensign does not deserve reelection and that is is time for a new person," Sackett wrote in a memo analyzing the poll results.

(Gibbons lost to former federal judge Brian Sandoval in a 2010 gubernatorial primary amid a series of swirling scandals; Sandoval cruised to a general election win in November.)

The Heller poll -- and the fact that he released it publicly -- seems to suggest that the 2nd district Congressman is moving toward a much-discussed challenge to the wounded Ensign next year.

The release of the survey comes just as Ensign is trying to ramp up his fundraising efforts following a lackluster last year of cash collection. (At the end of 2010, Ensign had just $226,000 in the bank -- a meager sum for any senator, particularly one who sits on the power Finance committee.)

The timing seems designed to give pause to donors thinking of re-upping with Ensign and ensuring that they know that they will likely have an alternative in the form of Heller soon enough.

Ensign has given little indication that he is re-thinking his plans to run for a third term in 2012. It's hard to imagine this poll changing his calculus much. But, it's a clear sign from Heller that he is moving full-steam-ahead against Ensign -- and that's a bad sign for the incumbent's chance of hanging on to the nomination.

It could also be bad news for Senate Democrats who believe they might be able to win in the Silver State -- particularly if they were planning on Ensign being the GOP nominee. Heller is a popular former statewide office-holder, would be a far less controversial and, therefore, would be more difficult to beat.

Rep. Shelley Berkley has expressed the most public interest in the race, but some Democrats say she's less likely to run if Heller gets in. Other Democrats like Secretary of State Ross Miller and state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto are also mentioned.

Palin at 6 percent in New Hampshire: Yet another early poll of the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary shows the race is Mitt Romney's to lose.

The former Massachusetts governor has led virtually every New Hampshire poll since the end of the 2008 election, so that's no surprise. But check out Sarah Palin.

The WMUR Granite State poll finds the former GOP vice presidential nominee at just 6 percent and tied for fifth place.

Palin, despite largely ignoring the state, has generally been in double digits in early polls. This poll suggests that neglect is starting to catch up to her.

The poll shows Romney way out in front at 40 percent, followed by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani at 10 percent, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee at 7 percent apiece.

Palin is tied with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 6 percent.

We discussed a year ago why Palin is a bad fit for the Granite State. Voters there seem to agree.

Barbour fights report that he lobbied for amnesty: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) is fighting back against a report that he lobbied on behalf of providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Time's Michael Scherer reported Monday that Barbour lobbied for the government of Mexico on behalf of a bill that some Republicans called "mini-amnesty" while at the lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith and Rogers. Scherer cited lobbying disclosure forms.

In response, Barbour released a fact sheet saying that his firm "never advocated amnesty for illegal aliens."

In a statement, the potential 2012 presidential candidate said: "Everybody knows we are not going to put 10 or 12 million people in jail and deport them. Once the border is secure, we should develop a responsible guest-worker program, and it can't include amnesty."

Hatch up double digits on Chaffetz, but under 50: A new poll shows some good and some bad news for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

The good news is the Dan Jones and Associates poll, conducted for the Deseret News, shows Hatch leads Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) 44 percent to 34 percent in a prospective primary matchup

That bad news is that Hatch is well under 50 percent, and he also needs to get through a tough state party convention before he can even get to the primary (Former Sen. Bob Bennett didn't make it to the primary last year).

That convention is dominated by ultra-conservative activists, and among voters who describe themselves as "very conservative," Chaffetz leads Hatch 51 percent to 35 percent.

If you need a refresher on Hatch's problems with the conservative base, take a look at what happened to him last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, when attendees jeered his support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout.

Fixbits:

A new Mason-Dixon poll shows Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) under 50 percent against several potential GOP opponents.

An automated poll in Arizona shows Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio leading the Republican primary for Senate. Without Arpaio in the race, Rep. Jeff Flake and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth are in a statistical tie.

Soon after winning the endorsement of the Club for Growth PAC, Flake got another boost for his Senate bid from the tea party group FreedomWorks. "He has been a rock star, someone we have leaned on -- and he hasn't disappointed us yet," said a spokesperson.

Barbour joins his friend and potential 2012 Republican presidential campaign opponent, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), in warning Republicans about seeking purity. Daniels said in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday that "purity in the face of martyrdom is for suicide bombers."

The back-and-forth between Donald Trump and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) continues.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), in spite of his ethics scandals, has filed papers to run for reelection.

Former wrestling executive Linda McMahon wins a straw poll conducted by the Connecticut Tea Party Patriots.

Must-reads:

"The GOP's enormous, gaping 2012 vacuum" -- Steve Kornacki, Salon

"Daniels faces tea party heat on AZ-style immigration bill" -- Maggie Haberman, Politico

"Ethics Board eyes Schmidt" -- Jennifer Yachnin, Roll Call

"Romney reaches out to business, but isn't ready to show hand" -- Glen Johnson, Boston Globe

By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake  | February 15, 2011; 8:25 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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