STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Democrats' prospects of holding onto their large majority in the United States Senate do not look quite as grim as they did a couple of months ago, but they still have many challenges, beginning right at the top. Senate majority leader Harry Reid is running for another term in Nevada, and his approval ratings in his home state are below 40 percent.
First lady Michelle Obama is in the state today to try to help him campaign. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports on Reid and the Republicans trying to replace him.
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CHOIR: (Singing) This is my country...
INA JAFFE: There was an overflow crowd at the chapel at the military cemetery in Boulder City, south of Las Vegas, yesterday. Most of Nevada's top politicians spoke. Harry Reid eulogized six young Nevadans who'd lost their lives this past year in Iraq and Afghanistan. He spoke so quietly, the crowd had to strain to hear him.
But, even though Reid is soft-spoken, slight of build and charisma-free, he was swarmed after the ceremony all the same. Supporter Ron Hibble(ph) said some Nevadans just don't understand how much Harry Reid has done for them.
Mr. RON HIBBLE: But now that things are a little tough, we need to get the word out, let them know what exactly he's done for this state.
JAFFE: Outside the chapel, the Senate majority leader took on that task himself.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): This, my role as majority leader has been very, very good for the state of Nevada. I have - there's nothing goes out of the Senate unless I have some say. As a result of that, Nevada's gotten far more than its share.
JAFFE: That may be so, but with Nevada's record high unemployment and home foreclosures, voters just haven't been feeling it. Polls have been showing that Reid could lose to almost anybody on the ballot with an R after their name; and until a few weeks ago, it seemed almost certain that name would be Sue Lowden -a businesswoman and former state senator. Then she made this famous suggestion for containing health care costs...
Ms. SUE LOWDEN (Businesswoman, Former State Senator, Nevada): You know, before we all started having health care in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say I'll paint your house.
JAFFE: Harry Reid's campaign wasted no time exploiting what they called Chickens for Checkups. Political columnists and late-night comics were merciless. And with early voting under way, the Nevada secretary of state went so far as to ban the wearing of chicken costumes in the vicinity of a polling place.
But wait, there is more. Recently, Lowden claimed a shiny new campaign bus was a donation, which would be a violation of campaign finance law. Then last week, she twice refused to tell interviewers whether or not she supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But Lowden insists there are no lasting wounds from these events.
Ms. LOWDEN: When I'm talking to real people, nobody is talking about a chicken, nobody's talking about a bus, and nobody here in Nevada is talking about civil rights.
JAFFE: At one time, it seemed Lowden had no one to worry about but businessman Danny Tarkanian. Another rival, former Assembly Member Sharron Angle was polling at just five percent. Then in April, Angle was endorsed by the Tea Party Express; an endorsement from the anti-tax group Club for Growth followed and the two organizations pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into her campaign.
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Unidentified Man: When the leadership of both parties in Congress ask their members to vote for more spending and higher taxes in the future - and you know they will - there is one candidate with a proven record of fighting back and saying no, and that's Sharron Angle.
JAFFE: After a blitz of TV ads, Angle and Lowden are essentially tied. If Angle makes it to November, she can expect Harry Reid to characterize her views as out of the mainstream. Angle declined to be interviewed for this story, but she's on the record as wanting to abolish the IRS, the Departments of Education and Energy, and, as she told Nevada journalist John Ralston on his political talk show, "Face to Face," she's not too crazy about Medicare and Social Security either.
Ms. SHARRON ANGLE (Former Assemblywoman, Nevada): We need to phase Medicare and Social Security out in favor of something privatized. We know that the government never gives us...
Mr. JOHN RALSTON (Political Talk Show Host): So, don't fix it. You're saying don't do any of these fixes.
Ms. ANGLE: I'm saying it can't be fixed. It's broken.
JAFFE: Each campaign has been focusing its attacks on Sue Lowden. But yesterday, outside the Memorial Day ceremony, Reid insisted he didn't care who he ran against in the fall.
Sen. REID: I'll just do the best I can. It's five months until the election; a lot can happen in five months.
JAFFE: Reid may be confident because most of his victories in the past have been squeakers and because his stock is rising - the latest poll shows that Harry Reid, the man it seemed almost anyone could beat, is now running neck-and-neck with the Republicans who expected to replace him.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Las Vegas.
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