By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 7:44 PM
Neither Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid nor his tea-party-fueled challenger, Sharron Angle, rose to the occasion in their Thursday night debate. That leaves unhappy Nevada voters a choice between two candidates with starkly contrasting philosophies but who have done little to inspire confidence.
If there was a moment that crystallized the evening for the incumbent, it came in the final minutes, when Reid (D) began pawing through papers on his lectern. He was looking for the notes for his closing statement. It was as if the four-term senator, one of the most powerful politicians in the country, didn't know what to say without written prompts - other than that he believes his opponent is an extremist, his mantra for the campaign.
For Angle (R), the key moment may have been when she was asked, several times, whether there were any medical procedures that insurance companies should be mandated to cover in their policies. "Anything at all?" she asked, quizzically. She declined to state one, saying she prefers an unfettered free market in health insurance.
Reid is the leader of what is called the world's greatest deliberative body, but he was not born to debate in a campaign setting. He was never in command through the hour-long debate and often seemed to take the narrowest path possible, whether defending his and the Democrats' record, attacking his opponent or trying to present a more effective case for why he should be retained.
He is proud to be called a fighter, but the boxer's instinct deserted him through much of the debate. In the fight of his life politically, he displayed little passion, energy or empathy.
Perhaps that was for tactical reasons. Saddled with high negatives, Reid appeared to believe he could not risk an all-out assault on his opponent, for fear of backlash from voters who already dislike him. The last thing he needs is to turn off more voters. The result was a series of attacks that were moderately delivered, often in the calmest of tones.
Reid's lone moment of genuine indignation came when Angle challenged him on how he could afford to live at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington. He reminded her that before politics he had been a successful lawyer and had made quite a lot of money. But he was ill-advised to offer a final thought, which is that since coming to the Senate he has lived on a "fixed income," which is an odd way to describe the salary of a Senate leader.
Angle appeared nervous in parts of the debate, though it was sometimes disguised behind her often-smiling presence. She is not a natural debater, either. She kept her presentation focused on first principles of conservatism: free markets are good; government is bad. She did not try to soften the edges of her philosophy or some of her past statements. If anything, she doubled down.
Government's job is not to create jobs but to create policies that help businesses create jobs, she said. Government should not require insurance companies to provide coverage for mammograms or colonoscopies. Americans should have the freedom to pick only those procedures they want covered, and the markets will reward or penalize insurance companies that don't offer what consumers want.
She was hardly tentative in taking the fight to Reid. "Man up, Harry Reid," she said in her most memorable line of the evening. It was a reference to what she said was the looming crisis in Social Security financing. Reid suggested that, with tiny fixes, the system would be good for the next four decades or beyond. She believes Social Security would be better off if individuals had private or personal accounts.
Angle's limitations as a candidate - her past statements and her very conservative views - have been the source of Democratic optimism about the Nevada race. Were she a stronger candidate, Democrats know Reid would be in even more trouble than he is, perhaps a sure loser in this climate.
But if this was a debate destined to show the mismatch of a shaky challenger against a robust and confident incumbent, then Reid's team had to come away disappointed. Reid seemed to shrink to Angle's level rather than rising above, as the leader of the Senate might be expected to do.
He rarely seemed in command, even if she rarely seemed fully at ease. By those measures, she survived well enough to get through what could have been a key turning point in the campaign.
One Reid adviser offered this notion in the hours after the debate: "She gave us a lot to work with." By that the adviser meant that Angle never backed away from what the Reid team sees as her extreme views. By Friday morning, Reid had released a new ad capturing Angle as she grappled with the question of whether there should be any mandates for insurance companies.
The Nevada race probably will go down to the wire as one of the closest in the country. Reid might have trouble persuading more voters to support his bid for reelection. His hope might be that he can turn enough voters away from Angle to the "none of the above" line on the ballot to let him eke out a victory with something short of 50 percent of the vote.
Reid vs. Angle is the iconic Senate campaign of the 2010 cycle, fought in a state with the highest unemployment in the country and one of the worst foreclosure crises. It is a prototypical matchup of Washington insider against tea party outsider. It has become one of the symbols of the power of outside money flooding into campaigns from undisclosed donors.
Ultimately, however, it is a race between two individuals. It's doubtful Reid could have sealed his reelection with a sterling performance on Thursday night, short of a dramatic mistake by Angle. Few debates prove to be that decisive. But he left the door open for her, which is certainly not what Democrats had hoped.