Nevada Sen. Reid's campaign batters image of GOP challenger

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010; A01

Few places are as aptly named as a divey little bar in southwest Las Vegas called The Hammer.

That's where the campaign brain trust of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D) unwinds over beer and nachos after long days spent trying to discredit his Republican opponent, former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle.

All summer long, Reid's small army of young, eager staffers has bombarded Nevada voters with unflattering, sometimes distorted allegations about Angle. They have scoured old newspapers, government transcripts and video archives for anything she has said or done that might be turned against her. In television and radio ads, Reid's aides have tried to create and then exploit perceptions that Angle is a dangerous reactionary.

It has not been especially difficult work. Angle, a "tea party" favorite, has said many controversial things in her years as a politician. A conservative who is deeply skeptical of government, she called for a phaseout of Social Security and proposed eliminating the departments of Education and Energy. Most recently, Reid claims to have uncovered information that links Angle to an obscure political movement called Christian Reconstructionism, which holds that government should rule according to biblical law.

"What this material shows is who Sharron Angle really is and what makes her tick," Reid spokesman Jon Summers said.

It might also be said that the material shows who Harry Reid really is: how much money and manpower the powerful incumbent has to throw around (his campaign has $9 million in cash on hand); how far he is willing to go to turn voters against Angle; and how, as a result of his efforts, the unpopular senator has revived his chances of reelection in a year when most voters say they don't want him in the Senate anymore.

Opposition research is standard operating procedure in modern politics. But for Reid, painting Angle as crazy has become an essential function of the campaign. The state's soaring unemployment rate and his own lack of voter appeal have left him one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.

He is gaffe-prone, as when he said recently that he didn't know "how anyone of Hispanic origin could be a Republican." And in an anti-incumbent year, Reid has chosen not to run on his credentials as one of Washington's most powerful politicians. Instead, his campaign strategy has been to use his formidable resources to diminish his opponent rather than to promote himself.

Reid undertook the effort to discredit Angle immediately after she won the June 8 GOP primary. His campaign spent millions on TV ads, a blizzard of news releases describing her as "wacky" and a Web site detailing some of her more unusual political views.

Summers won't say how many of the Reid team's 31 employees are focused on slinging mud. But at The Hammer, the subject dominates the happy-hour conversation. On a recent Friday evening, Summers recalled how pleased he was last spring when one of the opposition researchers found a damaging video clip of Angle's primary opponent, Sue Lowden. In the video, Lowden suggested Americans should barter for health care if they don't have enough money.

The clip is given credit for Lowden's subsequent slide in the polls and for Angle's eventual primary win, a proud moment for Reid's campaign. Reid's team had made no secret of its desire to see Angle win the primary. Reid judged her the easiest Republican to beat in November.

As Summers was telling the story, a Reid ad played on the television behind him. The narrator slammed Angle for once saying that government should "phase out" Social Security and Medicare (she now says she believes no such thing).

Angle, whose campaign was nearly broke after the primaries, was slow to respond to Reid's attacks. With the help of new consultants and fundraisers, she raised more than $2 million. Her campaign is now punching back with "oppo" sheets that blast "King Harry" and his gaffes.

On Friday, Angle released a television ad in which she says she wants to save Social Security and accuses Reid of "raiding" the retirement fund for "his own pet projects."

The ad was seen as an acknowledgment by Angle's campaign that Reid's attacks have been effective. But it also showed that Angle is willing to back away from some of her previous hard-line views in order to appeal to voters.

It is a measure of Reid's unpopularity that despite his aggressive campaign, he is running even with or just slightly ahead of Angle. A Mason-Dixon poll this week showed Reid at 46 percent and Angle at 44 percent.

Reid's response has been to push even harder. This month, The Washington Post received a 27-page packet linking Angle to Christian Reconstructionism. Similar material appeared in reports by other news outlets.

Within days, newspapers, television stations and political bloggers in Nevada began buzzing about Angle's ties to this largely unknown conservative movement, which says politicians should follow biblical law and should not separate their Christian beliefs from their secular duties.

The Reid packet strongly implies that Christian Reconstructionism is a dangerous secret society intent on turning the United States into a theocracy. This is something of a stretch. At its peak in the 1990s, the Christian Reconstructionist movement was small and mostly ignored. The group's founder, R.J. Rushdoony, tried to start a political party, but it went nowhere. When Rushdoony died nine years ago, the movement dried up.

It is true that some of Angle's views mirror those of Christian Reconstructionists. She has called government entitlement programs a violation of the First Commandment and has objected to church-state separation.

The Reid material also points out that Angle was an early member of the Independent American Party of Nevada, the state's affiliate of the Constitution Party, which seeks "to restore our government to its Constitutional limits and our law to its Biblical foundations."

Angle's spokesman, Jarrod Agen, said the candidate has never called herself a Christian Reconstructionist. The Reid campaign, he said, "is attempting to cross a bridge too far."

Agen predicted that by the time Election Day rolls around, "people are going to be sick and tired of Harry Reid's attacks."

That's probably true. But at this point, Reid, already disliked, isn't trying to win people over. He's trying to win, period.

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