Harry Reid vs. Sharron Angle: huge stakes in first and only debate

The only Harry Reid-Sharron Angle debate is set for Thursday. The focus is Nevada's troubled economy, but the race is also a referendum on Obama and a test of 'tea party' power.

Julie Jacobson/AP
Bob Slider, left, of Odessa, Texas, a supporter of Nevada Republican senate candidate Sharron Angle, demonstrates on a sidewalk next to Jan Duhaney of Las Vegas, a supporter of incumbent Sen. Harry Reid Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010, near Las Vegas, Nev. Reid and Angle face off in a televised debate Thursday.

After slugging it out in broadcast attack ads and in frantic fundraising appeals, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Republican challenger Sharron Angle get to do it face to face in Nevada Thursday night.

The Reid-Angle debate in Las Vegas – the only one scheduled between them – is meant to focus on the economy. The state is among the worst in the US in terms of unemployment and home foreclosures – not a good thing for incumbent Reid, who’s seeking his fifth term in the US Senate.

But the race is also a referendum on President Obama, and it’s virtually a must-win for Republicans if they are going to get to 50 seats in the next Senate.

Like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Reid is a prime rhetorical punching bag for Republican candidates across the country. For Democrats, Ms. Angle is a major face (and force) in the "tea party" insurgency that’s rocked both parties – in particular threatening to help undo Democratic control of Congress.

Former president Bill Clinton was in Nevada last week stumping for Reid. President Obama will be there next week. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican National Committee, and the organizations that GOP strategist Karl Rove is affiliated with are working on Angle’s behalf.

The race for the US Senate in Nevada couldn’t be closer.

Despite Reid’s negative advertising (and her own sometimes-strange comments and positions from which she’s had to backtrack), Angle has more than held her own in the polls.

A new survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week puts Angle ahead of Reid, 47 percent to 45 percent among likely voters (within the four-point margin of error). For the first time in weeks, Angle has edged out front in the TPM Poll Average – by a mere half percentage point.

But a Suffolk University survey of likely voters released Wednesday has Reid ahead 46 percent to 43 percent (also within the margin of error).

The start of Angle’s campaign was rough. She was favored by some – but not all – tea party supporters in the Republican primary. (A “Tea Party of Nevada” candidate is still on the ballot.) She seemed to suggest that there might have to be armed “Second Amendment remedies” – armed insurrection? – for a Democratic-controlled Congress.

But in recent weeks, her image seems to have improved – at least to the extent that her unfavorability ratings are no higher than Reid’s (although they’re both just above 50 percent). She leads 48 percent to 40 percent among independents, who make up 19 percent of Nevada voters, according to a new Public Policy Polling survey. But also in this survey, 43 percent think Angle is “too conservative,” and 53 percent think her political views are “extremist.”

Yet she’s been able to amass a campaign war chest rivaling Reid’s – $14.3 million, according to her latest quarterly report. She started out with nothing, and Reid began building a $20 million war chest in 2005, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

“The perception has been Harry Reid has his machine and Sharron Angle has this ragtag effort to compete,” Republican political consultant Ryan Erwin told the Las Vegas newspaper. “Now she has shown that she can compete with Harry Reid’s machine.”

With the race this close and with both candidates having a certain level of toxicity to their campaign and to their public persona, Angle’s and Reid’s main goal Thursday night will be to stick to their scripts and avoid gaffes.

“This is going to be the first time and probably the only time for the voters to actually see the candidates and how they react and respond,” Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “And if one makes a really bad statement or another gets a zinger in, that is what we are going to remember going into early voting [which begins Saturday] and the Nov. 2 election.”

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