By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 4:35 AM
LAS VEGAS -- Republican Sharron Angle challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's legislative record, his personal wealth and his manhood in a feisty debate Thursday, the one and only showdown between two starkly different candidates in one of the most important races of 2010.
A star of the tea party movement, Angle was tough and salty throughout the hour-long session, taunting the Democratic leader for living in a Washington luxury hotel and questioning how he could afford a high-end lifestyle on a government salary. She even slipped a dig into her answer to a Social Security question.
"Man up, Harry Reid," Angle said to Reid. "You need to understand we have a problem with Social Security."
With so many Senate races now up for grabs, the stakes in Nevada couldn't be higher. Reid is the most powerful member of the Senate and one of President Obama's most important allies. A master dealmaker, Reid steered Obama's ambitious legislative agenda through the Senate's choppy waters and is now under fire in his home state for the unpopular health-care bill and the worst economic slump in modern Nevada history.
Reid is an erratic public speaker, but by his standards, he delivered a solid performance. At one point he provided a somewhat graphic description of a colonoscopy, but he committed none of the verbal gaffes that have become his hallmark over the years.
Most of his jabs at Angle were subtle -- perhaps a little too subtle for an electorate that seems in a combative mood. He attacked Angle's opposition to insurance mandates, her proposals to eliminate the Education Department and other federal agencies, and her support for private Social Security accounts. "What she's talking about is extreme," he said more than once.
But he did not come out swinging, like his opponent. Reid responded to just one personal attack, when Angle questioned him, "How did you become so wealthy?"
"That's really kind of a low blow," Reid said, explaining that before he was elected to Congress, he was a "very successful" Las Vegas defense attorney.
The contrast between the two candidates was stark, both in style and substance. Angle and Reid seemed to approach the debate with different goals. The challenger aimed to show that she could stand up to a veteran of national politics, while the incumbent sought to connect with voters who are demoralized by the recession and downright hostile to Washington and anyone connected to it.
"Mortgages? I understand homes are underwater," Reid said in his opening statement. "That's why I worked hard to get $200 million into the state of Nevada to help homeowners" -- a reference to federal funding he helped to secure last month to help Nevadans who can't pay their mortgages.
Angle countered, "I'm not a career politician. I'm a mother and a grandmother. I was a teacher for 25 years. Senator Reid has been a politician for over 30 years. I live in a middle class neighborhood in Reno, Nevada. Senator Reid lives in the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C."
The Reid-Angle contest is as tight as any in the country, with polls showing almost no daylight between the two candidates. Supporters of both camps crowded the parking lot at the local PBS station that hosted the event, chanting and holding up signs. Reid's backers wielded slogans such as "Wrong Angle." The Angle camp rolled out a giant buffalo on a flatbed truck with a sign warning rush-hour commuters, "Don't be buffaloed" by Reid.
The stakes were high for Angle: She is less known around the state, holds few public events and avoids speaking to the local press. The debate gave the former state assemblywoman a rare chance to directly address voters who have been subjected to a barrage of negative television and radio ads, and who may know the caricature better than the candidate.
One of the most conservative Republicans on the November ballot this year, Angle was unyielding when challenged by Reid to explain some of her more controversial positions. She reiterated her opposition to the government requiring health insurance companies to cover procedures such as mammograms, remarking, "America is a country of choices."
She passed up numerous chances to connect with more moderate independent voters, at one point identifying Clarence Thomas as the Supreme Court justice she most admires, because he knows his "constitutional boundaries." Angle asserted that programs run by the Department of Education, such as Head Start preschool for low-income children, are "one-size-fits-all programs that fit no one."
For Reid, the challenge was to project a more likable image and to remind Nevadans of his considerable clout, which has allowed him to funnel mortgage relief, renewable energy investments and infrastructure dollars to the economically battered Silver State.
Again and again, Reid reminded the audience of the perks he has delivered over his years in Congress. "We have to do more, of course," he said. "We're in this hole, and we're trying to dig out of it. There's a long ways to go, and no one's satisfied where we are."