RENO, Nev. (AP) _ Republican Rep. John Ensign was a safe bet to win the Nevada seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan this fall _ then Ed Bernstein showed up.

``Nobody believed I had a chance,'' said Bernstein, a liberal Las Vegas personal injury lawyer who has spent about $1 million of his own money so far in his first foray into politics.

Ensign, who came within 428 votes of beating the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate two years ago, has seen his 20-percentage-point lead in the polls cut in half since June.

The combination of Al Gore's surging popularity in the state and Bernstein's continued attack on Ensign's anti-abortion stands has Democrats saying they have a chance of holding onto the seat.

``I don't think Ensign should be buying any real estate in Washington yet,'' said Rory Reid, chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party and son of Sen. Harry Reid, the incumbent Ensign nearly beat in 1998.

The latest independent poll, conducted by Mason Dixon Polling for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and lasvegas.com, showed Ensign leading 50 percent to 39 percent with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the race may not get any closer.

``Nevada is still a fairly conservative state and Ensign is perceived as being closer to the average Nevadan,'' Herzik said.

A veterinarian and son of a casino mogul, Ensign is a rising star among Republicans. At 36, he won his House seat in the GOP wave that made Newt Gingrich speaker in 1994. Four years later his near defeat of Reid, the Democrats' whip in the Senate, made believers of GOP party leaders.

``Republicans are not only excited about him they are counting on him,'' said Ryan Erwin, executive director of the Nevada GOP.

Ensign has avoided overconfidence. ``I've said all along I don't know how close it will be but it certainly will be close.''

His supporters are counting on voters being turned off by Bernstein's occupation and eccentricities _ he studies Eastern religions, had a pony tail until launching his candidacy and once described himself as a cross between Madonna and the Dalai Lama.

``A personal injury attorney with a pony tail would rank in the rural counties somewhere between claim jumper and cattle rustler,'' said Peter Ernaut, Ensign's campaign director.

Bernstein, 51, makes no apologies. Raised in a lower-middle class Jewish family, he said he decided to become a lawyer at 19 when his first wife was killed in a traffic accident.

``I had to go identify the body,'' he said. ``I knew that day I wanted to be a lawyer to fight big companies that build unsafe cars. If that is a liability to stand up and fight for people who are underdogs, then I am proud of that.''

He said he decided to run for the Senate largely because of difficulties with HMOs and insurance companies in obtaining health care for his 11-year-old daughter, who has an incurable illness.

``For 11 years I've been fighting with them over care for my daughter. It is difficult for me and I have a law firm and do this for a living,'' he said. ``My wife Nancy told me to stop complaining and do something about it.''

Bernstein has hammered the health care and prescription drug issues that Democrats nationwide have made the center of their campaigns this year. But Ensign's vehement stand against abortion is most responsible for tightening the race, said Jim Jordan, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Ensign disagrees that the contest is about abortion rights.

``Two people have run against me before on this issue and it never hurt me,'' he said. ``I think frankly, people know where they stand on it. A lot of people are just tired of having it shoved down their throat.''