MESQUITE, Nev. — Something about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., bothers people, and it's jeopardizing the re-election of one of Washington's most powerful figures.
"President (Barack) Obama is ruining the country, and the only way we in Nevada can stop him is to stop Harry Reid," said Joyce Perata, a retired suburban Las Vegas marketing executive who voted for Obama in 2008 and Reid in 2004.
The political future for Reid, the leader of the U. S. Senate's 57 Democrats, rests with how many agree with Perata, and for now that question remains unanswerable.
Defeating Reid, 70, would be the biggest single coup that Republicans could achieve this election year. He remains a shaky favorite, if only because he's running against former state legislator Sharron Angle, 61. She's a conservative Tea Party candidate whose controversial stands include calls to privatize Social Security and Medicare.
Such talk keeps Reid-doubters such as Sandy Clark, manager of Dono's Smoke Shop in Mesquite, undecided.
"My original plan was to vote out every incumbent, because I don't think they're listening to the American people," Clark said as she stood in her store, located in a half-empty strip mall in this one-time boomtown 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. "But I can't do that now. I don't really want to vote for Reid, but I also don't like what she's saying about Social Security."
Reid clearly has a tough road ahead. He finds himself the victim not only of sour views about Obama and Washington, but also of his state's dramatic economic downturn.
Nevada, long regarded as a wide-open land of opportunity, is crashing; its June unemployment rate was 14.2 percent, the nation's highest — a full percentage point above perennially strapped Michigan. That makes it hard for Reid to argue that the economic recovery plans he's shepherded through Congress are working.
Typical of the state is the fate of Mesquite. This chunk of desert along the Arizona border has doubled in size since 2000 to nearly 20,000 people, many of them retirees who've poured in from all over the country. Today this predominantly Republican city is a blend of prosperous-looking homes and areas that appear to be hurting; two of the city's five major casinos sit empty.
The entire state has shared that experience. Nevada has grown to 2.6 million people, up from 2 million a decade ago. A lot of newcomers "look at Senator Reid and he seems bland, charismatically challenged. They don't know him, except as a horse trader in Washington," said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Reno.
Reid, the son of a Searchlight, Nev., hard rock miner, is seeking a fifth Senate term. He was ahead by only one percentage point _ 43-42 percent _ in a Mason-Dixon/Las Vegas Review-Journal poll taken July 26-28, down sharply from the 7 point lead he held in a poll by the same sponsors taken July 12-14.
He reminds voters in ads and stump speeches of what he's done for the state, most recently his successful push for a new veterans hospital in southern Nevada. He also promotes his role in helping save thousands of jobs by urging banks to keep the massive Las Vegas City Center project afloat when investors were reluctant to keep it going.
Perhaps most fortunate, he's running against Angle, who won a bitter multi-candidate primary running as an outspoken conservative. It's not clear how much she'll unify the state's Republicans, let alone woo reluctant Democrats and independents.
She's trying to soften her approach, but the rough edges remained as she addressed about 125 people recently at Spiedini's Ristorante in Summerlin, a middle-class Las Vegas suburb, during a meeting of the Spring Mountain Republican Women.
Angle blasted the Reid-led health care overhaul as "classic Harry Reid following (liberal community organizer icon) Saul Alinsky's 'Rules for Radicals' playbook." She insisted that people should be able to opt out of Social Security and set up "personal accounts."
Angle has come under fire because during a May debate she said, "We need to phase Medicare and Social Security out in favor of something privatized."
The crowd frequently applauded her comments, though not everyone was pleased. The last question to Angle asked her why she'd be a better senator.
"I'm not Harry Reid," she said.
Las Vegas retiree Barbara Riolo was unimpressed.
"She's a little more polished now," Riolo said, "but she doesn't answer the question." Riolo backed another candidate in the primary, and remains undecided.
Reid has two challenges: Remind people of his deep ties to his home state and plant doubts about Angle. His TV ads pound those doubts home night after night, emphasizing her controversial comments.
Reid himself told an audience of liberal Democrats in Las Vegas last week that "the contrast couldn't be stronger. Neither this state or country can afford candidates like my opponent for the United States Senate."
Reid has a motivated network of boosters who can recite what he's done for their community. In Mesquite, for instance, City Councilwoman Donna Fairchild talks effortlessly of how "Harry Reid truly believes in small town America," how he helped get money to have a local highway interchange rebuilt, and helped fight having a coal-fired electric plant built nearby. Instead Reid has fought hard for alternative energy.
"He does his job in a very quiet way, and he does what he can," said a satisfied Virginia Loomis, a retired teacher who moved here three years ago from upstate New York.
Nevertheless, at the Stateline Casino, a favorite Mesquite hangout, the lunchtime crowd is largely unenthusiastic. This is a blue-collar crowd, hanging onto their jobs or living on retirement income.
"Time for a change. There's too much government," said Mike Butchko, a sales representative.
Still, like others, he's not completely sold on Angle. These folks may be wary of government, but they like their Social Security and Medicare.
"I'd like to see Harry go, but Angle has some crazy ideas," said Mike Ward, a retired engineer. "I just may leave the ballot blank."
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