Berkley’s not quite dead yet

Wed, Jul 11, 2012 (2 a.m.)

Shelley Berkley is dead, one in an occasional series:

Within moments of the House Ethics Committee’s announcement Monday that it was moving forward with its probe of the Nevada congresswoman, the national chattering class began digging her political grave.

The pain of being buried alive must be excruciating, but there are those who have long considered Berkley a Dead Woman Walking. Even if she were still viable — and I now have serious questions about whether she can win this race — Berkley’s campaign, which has all but cocooned her for much of this race and foolishly not bivouacked in critical Washoe County, needs a new strategy. And fast.

I won’t declare her — as many of my national media peeps have — dead quite yet. Nobody is dead in Nevada Democratic politics until The Godfather, aka Harry Reid, taps him or her on the shoulder and makes an offer that can’t be refused.

(Why do I imagine Prince Harry inside “Animal House” and yelling to his acolytes: “Nothing is over until I say it’s over!”? Even though Berkley was not his first choice, Reid is not yet panicked enough to be singing, “Where have you gone, Byron Georgiou? A Democratic nation turns its lonely (and desperate) eyes to you ...”)

I have seen a lot of strange things in Nevada politics, but the thought of Berkley surrendering is inconceivable. Whatever questions anyone may have about the congresswoman, she is indomitable and her work ethic unequaled.

But the task at hand has gone from being difficult to near-Sisyphean. Team Berkley can prattle on about the election being about Sen. Dean Heller’s Medicare-killing votes or his war on women or any other handy Democratic memes. And they can say Berkley was only acting in her constituents’ best interests when she advocated for a transplant program and higher Medicare reimbursement rates.

But Heller, with an ad that starts today, and outside groups such as American Crossroads, which will be up again soon, will make this less about access to health care than her husband’s access to her. The Heller ad clearly was produced before the ethics decision and is just the beginning.

It also is inconceivable that Heller will not use ethics controversies in the late ’90s about Berkley’s tenure with none other than Gondolier Numero Uno Sheldon Adelson — she urged him to contribute to judges to get benefits and to help county commissioners in their private-sector lives — to create a “pattern of behavior” assault that only piles more dirt into the grave.

Berkley takes it as an article of faith that people know her husband is a doctor, that they know she would never, ever behave unethically, that she loves her work in D.C. too much to compromise herself. But many, many don’t.

She is relatively unknown, especially in the key battleground of Washoe, and this will be how she is defined, thanks to Heller and Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity and other ill-wishers.

But even if I grant Team Berkley that they may be able to at least partially defuse these attacks by changing the subject, I’m not sure the subject will be enough of a distraction, unless they can raise some sort of ethical cloud over Heller. And Squeaky Clean Dean may be hard to tarnish.

The real issue here is not so much that every story — or most of them — will refer to the ethics probe. It’s that this was not a level playing field to start. To wit:

• 2012 is not 2008. Democrats are less enthusiastic and have a smaller registration edge.

• Dean Heller is not Sharron Angle. As much as they try, Team Berkley cannot morph Heller into the Woman From Another Galaxy. Heller may have issues, including his sudden epiphany six years ago that he was a rock-ribbed conservative and not a maverick before suddenly becoming the D.C. guy running against D.C. Malleable, yes; otherworldly, no.

• Finally, Shelley Berkley is not Harry Reid. People, north and south, were willing to mortgage their lives to re-elect the majority leader last cycle and he brought to bear perhaps the most formidable campaign team ever assembled here or anywhere. I don’t sense the same energy and dedication this cycle, and certainly not the same intense dislike for the opponent.

And don’t forget, Heller hasn’t even used what his team considers a potential silver bullet issue — Berkley’s vote for TARP, which for him polls off the charts almost as well as his inane “No Budget No Pay” proposal.

So I’m not surprised the dirges are playing for Berkley. She may be a Dead Woman Walking. Maybe.

We may also find out if 2012 is 2010. Two years ago, I compiled a catalogue of columns about an apparently entombed Democratic Senate candidate written off by the D.C. pundit class and each began with the same whimsical device:

“Harry Reid is dead, one in an occasional series ...”

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