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National GOP puts big effort into saving Nevada Senate seat

Dining on tournedoes of beef, about 200 Republican stalwarts recently turned out for a fund-raiser here with Vice-President George Bush. The result: A plump $100,000 for the United States Senate campaign of James D. Santini. A few blocks away, some local Democrats met in Jack Schroeder's front yard and anted up 40 cents a plate for beans and franks. The take: about $200 for the war chest of US Rep. Harry M. Reid, Mr. Santini's rival for the seat being vacated by the retirement of Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt.

The two vignettes tell a lot about the way one of the closest Senate races in the country is unfolding.

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There has been a steady stream of national GOP leaders through Nevada to campaign on Mr. Santini's behalf, and party officials here believe their influence could be crucial in swaying the election. The race is shaping up as one of the most vivid tests of President Reagan's coattails in the country. The Reid camp is trying to portray it as a battle of the ordinary man versus the Republican oligarchy. They hope to appeal to the independence of Nevada voters and their lingering mistrust of dictates from Washington.

Thus far, the Reid strategy appears to be at least modestly successful. Opinion polls give the Democratic Congressman a slight, but continuing, edge over his Republican rival. Yet political watchers here say he will need the several-point cushion to overcome a Republican blitz in the final weeks of the campaign. President Reagan, who has already visited the state once, is scheduled to return Oct. 9., and may come a third time before the Nov. 4 balloting. And Senator Laxalt is expected to step up his campaigning for Santini in the weeks ahead.

That the race is getting a lot of national GOP attention should not be surprising. It will help determine whether the Senate stays in Republican hands or shifts to Democratic control in the final years of the Reagan era.

It may also affect Laxalt's political future. A loss by Santini, whom the senator handpicked as his successor, could damage Laxalt's prospects as a potential contender for the 1988 GOP presidential nomination.

Given the importance of the race, both camps are digging deeply into their wallets. As much as $5 million may be spent by the two candidates by election day -- more than $13 per registered voter, a state record. The Republicans will likely raise the most. But both camps are expected to have enough to finance near-saturation TV ads up to election day.

A key strategy of the Reid campaign is to portray Santini as a turncoat and a sluggard. Santini served four terms as a Democratic US representative from Nevada before switching parties this year to enter the Senate race. It is unclear how much that will affect his chances.

Some of the Democratic faithful were peeved when Santini challenged Sen. Howard Cannon in the Democratic primary in 1982. Santini lost, but the fractious primary battle contributed to Mr. Cannon's loss in the general election to Republican Chic Hecht.

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Democrats still outnumber Republicans here, though GOP registration has been rising, and Santini will need some Democratic support to win. Some Republicans, meanwhile, are bound to be wary of Santini's switch to the GOP fold. Nevertheless, politics-watchers note that independent-minded Nevadans do not always vote along party lines, so the impact may be minimized.

Santini backers were heartened by the solid showing of support for their candidate in the Republican primary.

Reid charges that Santini, as a Democratic congressman, missed a relatively high percentage of House votes, particularly in 1982. Santini backers counter that ``quality, not quantity'' is the key. They say Santini is aReagan-supporting conservative, in step with the majority of Nevadans, while Reid is an old-line liberal who has done little to benefit the state in Washington.

On many current issues, the two veteran politicians do not seem very far apart. Both are relatively conservative on social issues (they oppose abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment). Both are generally supportive of Reagan foreign policy, though Santini wants to send aid to the Nicaraguan contras while Reid does not.

At least two debates are planned between now and the election -- and they could be critical in determining the outcome of the race.

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