HENDERSON, Nev.-- At 7-Eleven, nothing is small. Red Bull cans look like artillery shells. Plastic drink cups are suitable for bathing. Straws can knock a man down. So it's not a surprise that when Joe Heck, the Republican candidate for Congress in Nevada's Third District, campaigns at a 7-Eleven here, voters want to talk about the Big Race. What does he think about the battle between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle? You can't blame them for asking. Even people outside Nevada are obsessed with this race. Reid, the Senate majority leader, would be the biggest Republican prize of the year. Angle, a Tea Party favorite, seems to be trying to prove just how durable she is by setting off little explosions to distract her campaign. Last week started with a leaked private audiotape and ended with Angle claiming Sharia law had taken hold in two American cities, one of which does not exist.
Heck, a Republican, is just trying to do his own thing. He's at the convenience store holding a "Joe Knows Jobs" event, meant to show that he is focused on the only issue voters care about. When voters ask him about Angle or Reid he doesn't offer an opinion about either one. He plays pundit, saying the race is going to be close. When a woman says she's worried Angle will take away her Social Security, Heck doesn't defend his fellow Republican. He simply says the program should be protected. Finally, a voter asks him directly: "Who are you going to vote for?" He says he's still making up his mind. "I'm waiting to see all of the evidence before I make my choice," he says.
That Heck would even contemplate voting for Reid would shock any visitor to his Web site, which is also obsessed with the Reid/Angle race. Across the top blares this quote from none other than Mitt Romney: "The road to sending Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi home goes through Joe Heck and Nevada's Third Congressional District." Democrat Dina Titus, the incumbent, is trying to make the connection toxic. In an ad called "Two peas," she suggests Heck and Angle represent the same kind of extremism. (In Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennet has started using the "two peas" line to tie his opponent to Angle.)
The Third District, where Heck and Titus are competing, is so important to the Senate race because it is the most densely populated district in Nevada. Clark County holds 920,000 of the state's 1.3 million voters. (This fact is also prominent on Heck's homepage, to drive home the idea that if voters turn out for Joe and vote the GOP line, then they'll bounce Reid.)
But there's a catch: The district can't be won with Republicans alone. The most populous congressional district in the country--Nevada will likely get another seat in the House from reapportionment--it is a quintessential tossup area, filled with the kind of suburban voters and senior citizens Republicans will need to win if they're going to take back Congress. Shaped like someone squeezed a round district through their fingers, there are more Democrats than Republicans, and 16 percent of voters are registered nonpartisans. Even in a wave election, in which Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats and benefit from a bad economy, it is a district where the middle still matters.
That's why Heck is being coy at the 7-Eleven. The voters in road crew vests buying Red Bull before work, or the casino workers buying cigarettes after a shift, are mostly Democrats. "Hey, I know you," says Ken Laub, who enters the store wearing a hard hat. "I've heard all the lies about you on TV." (There have been tons of ads, particularly from third-party groups.) Heck has to convince people who might not like Sharron Angle to split their ticket--voting against the Republican for Senate but voting for the Republican for the House. Laub calls Angle a "whack job," but he might vote for Heck. At 58, he says he's a lifelong Democrat, but Obama was the first actual Democrat he voted for in a presidential race. (There are ticket-splitters in this district. In 2008, Obama won by 13 points, but Titus won by only 6 over the incumbent Republican.)
Heck appeared to make headway with others, too. Sharron McCulley, the woman worried about Angle's position on Social Security, said she was a Democrat but was considering Heck. She liked his focus on tax cuts: "It's the only way we can lure business back here." Katherine Davis, who boasted to the clerk at the 7-Eleven that her 14-year-old daughter had gotten a 100 percent on a geography test, said that Angle's statements about the federal Department of Education terrified her. Still, she'll consider voting for Heck.
If Titus can damage Heck by tying him to Angle, it will upend the conventional wisdom that the economy is more important to voters than anything else. The economy in the Third District is terrible. The Las Vegas unemployment rate is 14.6 percent, slightly above the state figure, which is the highest in the country. Some 70 percent of the district's homeowners are upside down on their mortgages. There have been so many foreclosures in this area it makes it hard to campaign. "You walk through a neighborhood and every third house is either a lock-box or a foreclosure sign," says Heck.
Heck, a physician, Army Reservist, and former state senator, is a precise and disciplined campaigner. He is not trimming his views to win the middle. In a district that is 18 percent Hispanic, he opposes birthright citizenship and supports the Arizona immigration law. He says he will not accept earmarks for the district. He wants to offer a voluntary private account option for Social Security and overhaul Obama's health care legislation. His economic views are standard GOP fare--lower taxes and less regulation create opportunity for job creation. "Please stop trying to help us," he says voters are telling him. "The more you try to help us, the worse I get."
Titus, a one-term incumbent and former political science professor, has voted for all of the federal help. She supported the stimulus bill, health care reform, and cap-and-trade energy legislation. In a state that benefits from federal dollars and needs them badly, those votes aren't all a problem. She makes a strong case for the $2 billion the stimulus bill brought home to the state. But if she's going to survive, it'll be due to her attacks on Heck. So far, she's made a little headway. Heck was ahead, but now the two are statistically even. But if the truth still holds that independent voters break for the challenger in the end, then a tie isn't good enough for Titus. If this is a 7-Eleven-sized election, she won't be coming back to Washington.
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John Dickerson is a CBS News political analyst. He is also Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. You can also follow him on Twitter here.