Harry Reid, Sharron Angle debate: How could an hour go on that long?

Senate majority leader Harry Reid is in the fight of his long political life. Republican challenger Angle is one of the most prominent tea party-backed insurgents. But their debate Thursday was ... a letdown.

Julie Jacobson/AP
Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, left, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid talk as moderator Mitch Fox looks on following their televised debate Thursday in Las Vegas.

There are political debates where you think “Lincoln versus Douglas.” Great minds and great wits dueling rhetorically, leaving listeners inspired, advancing the cause of the republic.

Then there was Thursday night in Las Vegas, where Harry Reid and Sharron Angle made an hour seem like two. Or three.

It takes nothing away from their intelligence or dedication to say that in terms of personality and eloquence, these two are a matched pair – duller than desert dirt clods in Tonopah. Did their high school curriculum did not include speech and debate?

Which is not to say this was not an important event. Senate majority leader Reid is in the fight of his long political life. Republican challenger Angle is one of the most prominent tea party-backed insurgents threatening the political establishment, making Republicans as well as Democrats nervous. If she beats the four-term incumbent, it’ll be a major step in the GOP’s fight to regain control of the US Senate.

Despite the Reid campaign’s attack ads (and her own early stumbles), Angle remains virtually even with Reid in the polls. And she’s surprised pundits by collecting more than $14 million (so far) in campaign contributions. That's allowed her (like Reid) to fill the airwaves with advertising in major Nevada markets costing far less than, say, New York or Los Angeles.

Thursday night itself (mercifully, their only debate) probably was not a game-changer. There were no major gaffes, no particular weirdness, although fact-checkers may have nits to pick. The rhetoric was pretty much campaign boilerplate.

As the challenger trying to topple the Senate’s top-ranking Democrat, Angle was more aggressive than Reid – at least during the early minutes. She tied him to “Obamacare,” as critics of health-care reform call it, blamed him for Nevada’s abysmal unemployment and home-foreclosure records, and accused him of getting rich as a “career politician” who “lives in the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C.

Not so, retorted Reid. He said he now lives on a fixed income after being a successful defense attorney who then invested wisely so that he could put his five children through school. As he always does, Reid also reminded the C-SPAN audience that his father was a hard-rock miner and his mother had to take in laundry from the local brothels.

Angle described herself as a former teacher, a “mother and grandmother” living in a “middle-class neighborhood” in Reno – not mentioning her years in the Nevada Assembly or run for Congress in 2006.

On the issues, Angle and Reid made plain their differences.

On immigration, she’s for greater border security, he’s for comprehensive immigration reform (and, of course, border security too). Angle embraces Arizona’s controversial immigration law, tweaking Reid for backing the federal government’s challenge of that law.

Reid calls Angle’s earlier statements about privatizing Social Security “extreme.” She’s backed away from that, now advocating “personal retirement accounts.”

Angle said, “The solutions to the health-care insurance cost problems are simple…. They reside in the free market.”

Reid: “Insurance companies don’t do things out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it out of a profit motive, and they have almost destroyed our economy.” Insurance companies, he says, should be forced to cover certain procedures, such as mammograms.

On the Bush tax cuts:

Reid: “I guarantee everyone that there will be no increase for middle-class people in America. No tax increase for middle-class America. We have to see what we are told by the experts, what we should do with the people who make more than that.”

Angle was pithier: “With voting for over 300 tax increases, Senator, we can’t trust you with our taxes.”

We’ll have to get back to you on those 300 tax increases.

"Sharron Angle did not, overall, come across as extreme or dangerous as Reid's campaign would have liked," Mark Peplowski, political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada in Henderson, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "Harry did a good job of remaining calm, not attacking and referring to her as 'my friend.' ”

After an hour, Angle and Reid shook hands and smiled. Which was more than many of their supporters have been doing. Fistfights have broken out at rallies, and for security reasons Thursday’s debate was held in an empty TV studio with a heavy police presence outside.

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