Reid-Angle Nevada Debate Could Be Game Changer : It's All Politics Sen. Harry Reid and Sharron Angle's Nevada debate Thursday could prove decisive in a race as tight as theirs. Many voters haven't had a chance to see Angle who is gaffe-prone. Which, by the way, is also true of Reid.
NPR logo Reid-Angle Nevada Debate Could Be Game Changer

Reid-Angle Nevada Debate Could Be Game Changer

Debates don't often decide elections.

But tonight, the ugly, deadlocked Nevada Senate race between four-term incumbent Democrat Harry Reid and Tea Party-fueled Republican Sharron Angle could turn on what transpires during the candidates' one-hour, first and only debate.

In a race where both gaffe-prone candidates have largely avoided the media and the public, the debate will provide voters an opportunity to see if they agree with Reid's blunt characterization of Angle as "crazy." (The debate is scheduled for 9 pm ET. is starting its coverage at 7:45 pm ET.)

And it will give Angle an opportunity to project the opposite - and to remind voters that most of them really don't much like the Senate majority leader, or anyone else in Washington, for that matter.

"A vast majority of voters have never seen Sharron Angle live," says David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "What they've seen are surrogates, press releases, and advertisements."

"That raises the stakes for her," he says.

But the stakes are also high for Reid, whose home state approval ratings have tanked, and who has not been able to shake Angle - despite his early money and organizational advantages.

Angle has stunned Democratic strategists by raising big money nationally ($14 million in the third quarter alone) and remaining competitive or slightly ahead in recent polls despite stumbles that in a less anti-Washington, anti-Reid environment could have proved fatal.

She has advocated phasing out Social Security, Medicare and the Department of Education. She suggested that those angry at Congress may consider "Second Amendment remedies." She said that "Sharia law" was a threat in two U.S. cities.

And in recent days, Angle was forced to disavow anti-Mormon comments made by her pastor at the Sonrise Church in Reno. About 10 percent of Nevada's population identify themselves as Mormon, including Reid.

"The electorate may be anti-incumbent, but most of them aren't pro-crazy," says Dean Debnam of the left-leaning Public Policy Polling, which has Reid with a "razor-thin" lead over Angle, 47-45 percent.

"If Harry Reid had a different kind of opponent, he would have been toast," Debnam says. "Actually, he was toast."

But when Nevada's Republican primary voters in June rejected the party's hand-picked U.S Senate candidate Sue Lowden and picked Angle, it did, indeed, appear to be the best possible scenario for Reid.

And his campaign hasn't done anything wrong, Damore, the political scientist, said.

"They kept him away from the public eye, pushed the narrative on her, and she's made a number of missteps," he says. "But Angle is more resilient than they expected and developed a national fundraising effort."

In a state with unemployment rate that exceeds 14 percent, and one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the nation, "people are looking for someone to blame," Damore says.

So though 53 percent of Nevadans surveyed recently by Debnam's firm characterized Angle as "extremist," the race remains anyone's to win.

Reid's supporters are hoping that their candidate tonight can force Angle to defend her more controversial positions.

And Angle? She will push what has been her most effective message, one she used in a series of hard-hitting ads: "We tried it Harry Reid's way," she says, "and it didn't work."

Early voting in Nevada starts Saturday. Privately, many strategists say that Reid's get-out-the-vote organization, and polls that may undercount Latinos and young, cell-phone users, may give him the edge on Nov. 2. But that's just speculation.

"It's just the craziest race - and in a state where the Republican Party had been on the ropes," Damore says.

By late tonight, Nevada Senate race watchers will likely have a better idea who the restive and angry electorate will send to Washington.