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Reid's angle: Attack GOP Angle in Senate race

Harry Reid's advisers know the score: If the election remains a referendum on the incumbent, he probably loses. The Senate majority leader needs to make the race about his opponent.
Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill. Connected Republican Sig Rogich formed "Republicans for Reid" several months ago in response to GOP nominee Angle's 'radical positions.'Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sig Rogich is a hyper-connected Nevada Republican who helped elect Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and once worked a few steps from the Oval Office in a White House corner later occupied by Karl Rove.

So which candidate gets Rogich's considerable support in the Nevada Senate race: Democrat Harry Reid or Republican Sharron Angle?

"Harry Reid," says the GOP strategist, who started "Republicans for Reid" months ago. "I could never support somebody who espouses the radical positions that Angle does."

Rogich's position is another small but significant sign that Reid, the Senate majority leader whose popularity has plummeted in Nevada, has a new hope for re-election.

Reid's rival — according to consultants and elected officials in both parties, as well as independent observers — may be a more flawed candidate than Reid.

And that's saying something.

Reid, 70, is a highly visible symbol of what many Nevadans consider to be a liberal, big-spending Obama agenda. A majority of the state's voters disapprove of his performance, polls show, and they are restless.

Nevada is among the hardest hit states in terms of unemployment and housing, with the jobless rate at 13.7 percent in April and record foreclosures.

On top of that, Reid is more comfortable in Congress than on the campaign trail. He can be prickly, and is prone to silly mistakes.

Reid apologized in January after a book revealed that during the 2008 presidential campaign, he described Obama as a light-skinned African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

And there's Reid's biggest handicap: While early primaries suggest this year's elections will be marked by an anti-establishment, anti-Washington sentiment, Reid is Washington's Mr. Establishment — leader of an unpopular Senate who spends his many nights in Washington at the Ritz-Carlton.

Who can blame Republicans for waxing nostalgic about 2004, when South Dakota voters turned out then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle?

"And now," Rogich says of Angle, "we've got this nightmare."

Image: Sharron Angle
Some question whether U.S. Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, center, who was endorsed by the Tea Party Express, can oust U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.Ethan Miller / Getty Images North America

The Republican mayor of Reno, longtime Reid backer Bob Cashell, calls Angle an "ultra right-winger" who is "just too far to the right for me." While Rogich and Cashell supported Reid before Angle's GOP primary victory, their concerns about her reflect the feelings of many inside the GOP establishment.

Angle, 60, was an anti-tax, anti-government social conservative years before the tea party emerged. A largely unknown former state lawmaker with 10 grandchildren, she is as far outside the political establishment as Reid is inside.

Angle supports phasing out Social Security, wiping out the Education Department and returning to the days almost a century ago when the federal income tax was unconstitutional.

She has not said how she would — or even if she would — propose replacing government pensions or lost tax receipts.

During four terms in the state Assembly, she agitated leaders of both parties as a vote-no oppositional figure with sometimes unconventional views. She wanted female inmates to enter a drug rehabilitation program devised by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, an idea she still defends.

Angle backs the processing of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a wildly unpopular idea in Nevada.

She is, for now, often the subject of ridicule.

"Harry Reid has been on the ropes," says Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada-Reno, "but now he has as an opponent, Sharron Angle, who ... ." At that, Herzik begins to laugh. Why?

"Because," he says, "she may be the only Republican alive Harry Reid can beat."

Reid wasted no time trying to cement that image in Nevada, unleashing an ad within days of Angle's primary victory that depicts her as a heartless extremist who would slash Social Security and Medicare for the elderly.

The narrator asks, "What's next?"

That ominous tag line, Reid advisers suggest, will be a constant refrain as the Democrat spends his campaign budget — on track toward $25 million and expected to overwhelm what Angle can muster — to turn voters against her.

With his poll numbers so low and the public mood so sour, Reid's advisers know the score: If the election remains a referendum on the incumbent, Reid probably loses.

He needs to make the race about Angle.

Still, voters also will get a heavy dose of advertising that highlights Reid's political clout, and what it can deliver to recession-bitten Nevadans. It's a tactic endorsed by former President Bill Clinton, who has told Reid that he might as well embrace his Washington record because he can't run from it.

"We're not trying to show them that Washington is working," said Reid spokesman Jon Summers, "We're trying to show them that Harry Reid is working for them."

Angle, meanwhile, is struggling to expand her political operation beyond her Reno living room. She is getting help from the GOP and its allies, including a group led by Rove.

"I can't keep up," sighed her harried spokesman, Jerry Stacy, as he declined an interview request on behalf of his boss. Reid also declined an interview for this story.

Angle was in Washington this week to meet party leaders and start softening the rougher edges of her image.

During an interview with Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity, Angle disavowed her opposition to the Social Security program and said she just wanted to "personalize" it.