By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; A01
LAS VEGAS -- Sharron Angle was about to do something unusual: answer a question. At a recent appearance here at a women's business lunch, the elusive Republican Senate candidate and "tea party" favorite went from table to table, listening to the concerns of potential supporters and trying to convince them that they should fire her opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid.
A local actress named Dee Drenta asked Angle what she would do to help people find work. But instead of seizing what seemed like an easy chance to explain her jobs plan, the candidate revealed that she didn't have one.
"It really comes from the statehouse to incentivize that kind of stuff in our state," Angle said. "Truly, the lieutenant governor, Brian Krolicki, you should have this conversation with him. That's his job, to make sure that we get business into this state. My job is to create the climate so that everybody wants to come."
The woman gave her a puzzled look. "I'm sure you're probably planning on working with these people to do these things," Drenta said, hopefully. "Because it's the end result that matters, whether it's specifically in the job description or not."
After six weeks of virtual silence, Angle has emerged from the cocoon she retreated into after winning the Republican nomination. She has hired Washington consultants, raised money and gathered a staff. And for the first time, she has begun to release a public schedule of her campaign stops. (Though she still makes it a practice not to talk to reporters. At both of her recent news conferences, Angle declined to take questions.)
None of this has done much to convince Nevadans that she is a serious candidate. Reid, deeply unpopular in the state (his approval rating hovers below 50 percent), was once thought to be in great danger of losing his seat after 24 years in the Senate. But despite his association with Washington and Nevada's weak economy, he has adeptly taken advantage of Angle's stumbling -- and his own $14 million campaign bankroll -- to make himself look good by comparison.
The Democrat has flooded the Internet and the state's television stations with ads portraying her as a radical conservative. His campaign staff spins out releases that detail her "wacky" views. Now it is Angle, a former state assemblywoman, whose poll numbers are falling. In Nevada -- and back in Washington -- Republicans are beginning to wonder privately whether her campaign is finished.
That worry was evident on a recent weekday at Angle's Las Vegas campaign headquarters, where she offered The Washington Post a glimpse inside her organization.
"All of us true believers, we all know that polls are just a snapshot in time," Angle told her campaign team, which had assembled for a pep talk. "And really, we're going to have to roller coaster for a while. That's just the nature of a campaign. You saw it during the primary. We were up, we were down. But we always knew that it would all come together at the right time. And it did. And that's what we're looking forward to. . . . Don't lose your nerve in the beginning here, because we've got a pretty long road."
Instead of cheering Angle on, her staff members let loose with their frustration that the campaign and the candidate were floundering. They were buried in calls from voters wondering what to make of Reid's ads and upset that Angle wasn't responding. The two big topics were Angle's statements, now widely distributed courtesy of Reid, that she wants to "phase out" Social Security and that people who receive unemployment benefits are "spoiled."
"Sharron, the people who are working the phones a lot, especially the last couple of days, it's been really tough," said Jeri Taylor-Swade, one of the 20 or so campaign workers crowded into a sparsely furnished conference room. On the wall hung a painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
"These are not people who are opposed to you who are calling," added Kathi Minsky, who heads Angle's Las Vegas office. "These are people who love you, who are seeing distortions of your answers and they just want your answers. . . . They're hearing all this stuff, and they're afraid."
Angle said that until recently there was nothing she could do about Reid's attacks. She had emerged from the primary a winner but broke, and her campaign spent the intervening weeks raising millions of dollars. Before last week, Angle was operating her Senate campaign out of her house in suburban Reno.
"We couldn't" fight back, she said. "We didn't have the money to do it. We had to raise money, so that was the decision."
Angle insists now that she is ready to fight. After outraising Reid in the second quarter, she reported $1.7 million in the bank and said she has brought in $1 million more this month. Campaign staffers imported from Washington are starting a big-donor fundraising effort. They are getting ready to negotiate with the Reid camp on the rules of coming debates between the candidates. On Tuesday, Angle began running a television ad of her own, a feel-good spot trumpeting her conservatism.
Angle continues to draw energetic support from at least one segment of the population: the tea party base that propelled her to victory in the primary. During her tour of the new Las Vegas office, she learned that busloads of volunteers would be coming from across the country before November to help her try to beat Reid.
"Oh, my gosh," she exclaimed.
The tea partiers love her for her deep skepticism of government. She fiercely defends gun rights in part so citizens can be prepared in case Washington tries to grab too much power from the people. She has said she favors eliminating the departments of Education and Energy. At the women's lunch, she answered a question about how she would help pay for programs for young children by citing the Constitution and arguing that such matters are best handled by the states.
Most Nevadans don't share these enthusiasms. According to a new survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week, Reid is inching ahead, and Angle is bleeding support among independents -- the very voters Republicans were sure a few months ago they could win away from Reid.
"Nevada is struggling right now; it's really bad," said Nan Okuda, a Las Vegas business consultant who attended the lunch with Angle. She's no fan of Reid, but she didn't come away very impressed with Angle.
"It's like, 'Hmmm, what are you doing back there in Washington?' " Okuda said of the majority leader. "But if he's the best of what's happening, then yeah, I'll go with him."