Heller loses cool as Senate race turns ugly

You could almost feel it over the last few weeks.

Sen. Dean Heller, with help from his Rovian friends, has been pounding Rep. Shelley Berkley over her ethics troubles.  And despite her abysmal handling of the issue at times, the congresswoman has kept the race close. Yes, her image has taken a battering, and polls may lag that phenomenon, but this race is still far from over.

So although it was out of character for Heller to resort to hyperventilating hyperbole today by calling Berkley "the most unethical, corrupt person I’ve ever met in my life.” Really? Compared to ex-Sen. John Ensign, whom I think Heller met?

Even if Berkley recklessly used her position to advocate for policies that benefited her husband – and the Ethics Committee has not weighed in yet and despite Berkley’s amnesia about whether she ever asked for guidance – she did not commit nearly the depredations Ensign did.

But no matter: More interesting than Heller’s mini-temper tantrum is that the usually disciplined senator,, who rarely deviates from careful talking points, once even distancing himself from his campaign’s attack ads, is why: He hasn’t put her away.

Berkley’s transparent attempt to muddy the ethical waters, first with a series of ads tying Heller to a diamond scam that he has no ties to and now with the resurrection of an old issue old issue about a car driver friend of Heller’s. And the new Berkley ad didn’t even use the sex offender angle. It’s pretty clean, albeit almost as tenuous as the Diamond Dean hits.

But it sure hit a nerve with Heller, based on that quote. And I bet he doesn’t like to see these kinds of assessments, with the National Journal moving the race up a notch in Berkley’s favor and saying “the numbers aren’t moving here” despite the ethics attacks.

I still think Heller is a slight favorite here because of the ethics probe and Berkley’s challenge in Washoe County. But if Mitt Romney continues to falter in Nevada – and Heller scurried away from the GOP nominee today quicker than you can say “47 percent” – and the Democratic turnout machine reaches 2008, or even 2010 effectiveness, this could be a race where a congresswoman under an ethics cloud could win against a previously squeaky clean senator.

And the first debate is one week from today: Bring your popcorn.