Nevada's Reid, Angle To Face Off In Debate

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces off Thursday night against his Republican challenger, Sharron Angle. She's a Tea Party favorite and a hard-line conservative; he's deeply unpopular with Nevada voters. The polls show them neck and neck. Neither Reid nor Angle have had many public events during this campaign. Both are prone to controversial statements. Now they'll be on stage together, unscripted, for their one and only debate.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

The hottest show in Las Vegas tonight is the debate between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican challenger, Sharron Angle. Reid is in the fight of his career as he seeks a fifth term. He is deeply unpopular, but so is his controversial opponent. And most polls show the race virtually tied.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: When they were passing out charisma in heaven, Bill Clinton must have gotten Harry Reid's share. So the slightly built, soft-spoken senator was glad to have the ex-president campaigning for him this week at a Las Vegas high school gym.

HARRY REID: I'm introducing to the people of the State of Nevada, President Bill Clinton, my friend forever. Bill Clinton.

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JAFFE: Now, Bill Clinton campaigning for a fellow Democrat is not unusual. What was extraordinary was that there was an actual public event in the Nevada Senate race with one of the candidates there, live and in person. A rarity in this campaign, says veteran Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston.

JON RALSTON: Neither candidate wants to be out in unscripted environments, because neither thrive in those environments. It's kind of a contest of gas.

JAFFE: Gas like Harry Reid declaring that the war in Iraq was lost. And there was this unlikely observation, considering that Reid represents a state dependent on tourism.

REID: In the summertime, because the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol.

JAFFE: Then there's Sharron Angle, who recently contended that Dearborn, Michigan was governed by Islamic law, and said on the Lars Larson radio show that the purpose of the Second Amendment is for people to protect themselves from the government, which could happen sooner rather than later.

SHARRON ANGLE: You know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.

JAFFE: When asked about her more controversial statements, Angle usually smiles and denies having said any such thing as if the Internet did not exist. Angle now limits her appearances to conservative broadcast outlets and private fundraisers. So the Reid-Angle public battle has consisted almost entirely of dueling TV commercials.

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ANGLE: Reid actually voted to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders. What else could you ever need to know about Harry Reid?

JAFFE: Analysts have said that charge has almost no truth. It relates to a procedural vote on amendments to the health care overhaul. Meanwhile, the Reid campaign has been focusing on some of Angle's more controversial votes in the state assembly, where she was often a minority of one.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

Unidentified Woman #1: Sharron Angle voted to protect the privacy of sex offenders instead of the safety of our kids.

Unidentified Woman #2: Sharron Angle, ideas so extreme, they're dangerous.

JAFFE: This claim accurately reflects her vote, but exaggerates her position. Still, Jon Ralston says that ads like this have accomplished Harry Reid's main objective.

RALSTON: They have succeeded in raising her negatives in most polls to very close to what his are, which is about, essentially, half the electorate not liking her.

JAFFE: But Reid doesn't have to get all the voters who don't like Angle, says David Damore, who teaches political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There's an option on the Nevada ballot commonly referred to as none of the above. And it's part of the Reid campaign strategy.

DAVID DAMORE: Their goal is to push a lot of undecided Republicans not necessarily towards him, but if you can push them to none of the above or towards one of the third party candidates, those are votes that Sharron Angle is not getting.

JAFFE: But at tonight's debate, there will be no third party candidates, just Sharron Angle and Harry Reid with a full hour to provide each other with enough ammunition to last until Election Day.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

MELISSA BLOCK, host

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