LAS VEGAS — Sen. Harry Reid fought to save his job Thursday in his only debate with Republican Sharron Angle, with two weeks left in a close race that pits the U.S. Senate's most powerful Democrat against a tea party insurgent in a state with the nation's highest unemployment.
The candidates differed pointedly on the economy, immigration, health care and almost every issue that came up. Reid branded Angle as extreme, while Angle told Reid to "man up."
The biggest concern in Nevada, which had a 14.4 percent jobless rate in August, is the economy. While Reid, the Senate majority leader, conceded "We have to do more, of course," he listed initiatives he's pushed aimed at making the economy hum.
He listed a series of jobs in the state created with government help. "My job is to create jobs," he said.
Angle, a former state assemblywoman, countered that Democrats have provided little help for the economy, instead offering "more taxation and regulation coming out of Sen. Reid's administrative policies," as well as the health care overhaul enacted earlier this year.
Government can improve the economy, she said, "by encouraging the private sector to do what they do best, with policies from the government that give them confidence they can go forward."
Reid, 70, tried hard to remind viewers he's a native who's sensitive to residents' economic pain. "I have some idea what it's like to struggle," said the son of a Searchlight, Nevada, hard rock miner.
Angle, 61, insisted that she's more attuned to the needs of Nevada's residents.
"I'm not a career politician. I'm a mother and a grandmother," she said. "I live in a middle class neighborhood in Reno, Nevada," while Reid lives well in Washington.
The debate was considered pivotal in a race that's never had a clear frontrunner. In the latest Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey, conducted Monday and Tuesday, Angle led Reid, 47 percent to 45 percent, the first time she's pulled ahead since she upset the GOP establishment by winning the June primary.
When the margin of error, plus or minus 4 percentage points, is factored in, the race remains a virtual tie.
Both candidates have unusually high negatives — Reid was viewed unfavorably by 52 percent, Angle by 43 percent.
A big reason is what they symbolize. Many here view Reid's Washington ties unfavorably, but Angle's association with the tea party movement hurts her as well.
At one point, Angle asked Reid, "How did you become so wealthy on a government payroll?"
"That was kind of a low blow," Reid, who's seeking his fifth Senate term, fired back, explaining he did a good job investing money he made while in the private sector.
"Her suggestion I made money being a senator is simply false," he said.
Angle angered Democrats earlier this year by saying she wanted to end Social Security. She's since softened that stance and suggested accounts could be "personalized" to fit an individual's retirement needs.
"Don't frighten people about Social Security," Reid said. "The money is there and it's taking care of our folks," and will for the foreseeable future.
Reid has had his own controversies. Before the Senate recessed last month, he made a last-minute push to win approval of legislation that would create a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.
"We have a system in America that's broken and needs to be fixed," Reid said Thursday. He explained how he championed legislation to tighten border security, but added "I'm frustrated like everyone else is frustrated" about immigration law, and there need to be comprehensive changes.
Angle offered a contrast, insisting that, "We should be supporting Arizona," where a new requires state law enforcement officials to question people about their immigration status.
Angle also went after Reid for pushing President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Why not focus on jobs and the housing crisis instead, Reid was asked.
"We passed health insurance reform because we had no choice," he said.
No, Angle replied. The free market will weed out companies that don't offer enough choices or competitive rates, she said, adding that, "Obamacare offers no choices."
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