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Harry Reid is a study in contrasts

SEARCHLIGHT, Nev.—In Washington, he's the Senate Democratic leader, afforded all the deference and courtesies of his position. But here, amid the Joshua trees and russet hills of the Nevada desert, Harry Reid is simply "Pinky," the hard-rock miner's son who, on a good day, may get a corner booth at the Searchlight Nugget.

Harry Mason Reid is a study in contrasts: a soft-spoken nice guy with a tough-guy spiel; a partisan Democrat who opposes abortion and restrictions on gun ownership; a teetotaling Mormon with Sin City in his heart.

Or, as Republicans define him: a deal maker one day, a stumbling block the next.

As the leader of the opposition in the Senate, Reid is the country's top elected Democrat. He can free his 44 senators to vote as they wish or try to corral them into an unyielding force. As such, he's the Democrat who can most influence the fate of President Bush's second-term agenda, from Social Security to judicial nominations to tax cuts.

With his receding hairline and glasses, Reid cuts an unimposing figure—think Woody Allen without the New York neuroses. But his subtly hunched shoulders offer a hint of the boxer's crouch he once employed in the ring as an amateur fighter. He's confronted the Mob and shaken off death threats. In the ring, he said, he never suffered a nosebleed.

While some Democrats worry that his low-key style might make him an ineffective opposition leader in President Bush's Washington, Reid has shown that he can throw a punch, too.

Asked Thursday his reaction to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's insistence this week that Social Security must be transformed, preferably along lines urged by Bush, Reid replied:

"I'm not a big Greenspan fan. ... I voted against him two times. I think he's one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington," Reid said on CNN's "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics."

Reid complained that Greenspan had decried budget deficits when Bill Clinton was president but he doesn't criticize Bush for turning a federal budget surplus he inherited from Clinton into trillions of new debt.

Though Senate Democrats so far have presented a unified front on Social Security and judicial nominations, Reid's hold over his troops has yet to be truly tested.

"The real crunch time for Reid will be if and when the Bush administration attempts to cut a deal with Democrats on Social Security," said Marshall Wittmann, a fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Reid was born Dec. 2, 1939, in a tin-roofed shack in Searchlight, a small mining town in southern Nevada best known for its brothels. His father spent his time underground, mining for gold and other precious ores, until alcohol and depression drove him to suicide. His mother did laundry, and her clientele included the bordellos. With his mop of reddish hair, the lad came to be known as "Pinky" by the locals. It stuck.

Reid attended high school 40 miles away, in Henderson. When he graduated, his history teacher, Mike O'Callaghan, arranged for local businessmen to raise money to send him to college. O'Callaghan also taught Reid how to box, and after a foot injury ended Reid's hopes of being a college baseball player, boxing became his sport at South Utah State College.

"As I look back on it, I wasn't big enough, fast enough or good enough to be the athlete of my dreams," Reid said, reminiscing in the airy living room of his house in Searchlight.

So he became an amateur middleweight, sparring with and even fighting with pros in special exhibitions.

"I was really a good boxer," he said. No brag, just fact.

Hanging in his study is a boxer's portrait by LeRoy Neiman and a watercolor of Joe Louis fighting Max Schmeling, signed by both fighters.

Reid quit the ring when he married his high school sweetheart, Landra Gould. They moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked his way through George Washington University Law School.

O'Callaghan, by then a rising politician in Nevada, arranged a job for Reid on the Capitol Police force.

"We though it'd be a nice deal," Reid said. "We thought we'd have plenty of money, but my wife got pregnant, so she wasn't able to work. We were just struggling. We had two little kids. I worked six days a week, eight hours a day, went to school full time. It was just miserable."

Returning to Nevada with a law degree in hand, he took a job as a municipal attorney, got himself elected to a county hospital board, made a name for himself by getting the hospital administrator fired and won a seat in the state assembly. By 1970, his old mentor, O'Callaghan, was running for governor. Reid, only 30 years old, ran for lieutenant governor. Both won.

Four years later, O'Callaghan offered him a deal. "If you run for re-election, I'll resign early and you can be governor," Reid quoted O'Callaghan as saying.

Reid ran for U.S. Senate instead. "I should have followed his advice," Reid said. He lost by 600 votes.

O'Callaghan, eager to help his friend, named him to the state gaming commission in 1977. The job could have been easy, but it came at a time when crime bosses in Kansas City and Chicago were moving into Las Vegas. The gaming commission uncovered Mob interests in some casinos.

"Landra found a bomb they'd put on our car, there were all kinds of death threats and it was a bad situation," Reid said. The bomb was a crude device that was intended to ignite the gas tank when the car started, but it didn't work.

In 1982, Reid won Nevada's only seat in the House of Representatives. Four years later, he was elected to the Senate and has been re-elected since.

During Bush's first term, Reid was the Senate Democrats' second-in-command, the vote counter who tried to keep the troops in line. When Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota lost his re-election bid last November, Reid secured Democrats' support as his replacement within a day.

Reid is the Democrats' leader, but he's also from a state that President Bush has carried twice. That makes him particularly sympathetic to other Democrats from states that voted for Bush.

"He understands first and foremost that you have to represent the people who elect you and send you here," said Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who often votes with Republicans.

So far, Reid has played deal maker, helping Republicans regulate class-action lawsuits and negotiating a way for Democrats to vent over some of Bush's new Cabinet appointees without holding up their nominations.

At the same time, though, he's led the resistance to the president's Social Security plan and he's vowed to block seven Bush judicial nominees whom Democrats have rejected in the past.

That's one fight that could set off a monumental clash over a president's power to appoint judges versus the Senate's traditional respect for the rights of its minority members. Borrowing imagery from his youth, Reid has challenged Republicans to "go behind the pool hall and see who wins this one."

Chuckling, he said: "We could do some real harm."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Harry Reid

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