Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Published Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010 | 6 p.m.
Updated Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010 | 7:46 p.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sharron Angle have been lobbing verbal stink bombs at each other over the airwaves for weeks, and in the hour they faced off at the Vegas PBS studios, they kept up the pattern.
Angle pledged in her opening statement to highlight “the contrast” between her and Reid — and to that end, she took several direct shots at Reid, turning to him to say things like:
“That’s nuts,” “You need to apologize” and perhaps the best of the night, “Man up, Harry Reid.”
Reid chose instead to keep his face to the camera, even when defending himself against Angle’s attacks. He frequently called his “opponent” (he never uttered her name) a liar, and “extreme.” But for the most part, he tried to stick to substance, a move that makes sense for the candidate that’s the sitting senator.
The two candidates showed they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed on all of the major issues in this elections cycle either — from housing to unemployment, from the country’s wars to homeland security, and let’s not forget taxes.
But if there was one issue that emerged as the central sticking point of the night, it was health care.
Viewers would have noticed Angle’s frequent repetition of “Obamacare,” and Reid, especially, kept returning to the third-rail issue every time he could grab an extra second, ricocheting the conversation back from the Iraq war and taxes to clarify points of his position on health care.
For those wondering about the format: Angle had won all four coin tosses the night before the debate, so it was her call where she stood (stage right), who got the first opening statement (Reid), who got the last closing statement (her) and who would take the first question (Reid).
The questions were all the brainchildren of moderator Mitch Fox, host of Nevada Week In Review on PBS.
Each candidate had a minute to wrap up with their closers.
Reid, again, went first (that’s what losing the coin toss loses you, it appears — the final word.)
He listed what he’s highlighted as Angle’s negatives: Favoring big banks, opposing reforms for Wall Street, or regulations for corporations and the environment — and her past statements mocking renewable energy jobs as “designer jobs.” Reid has said he believes renewables are the key to saving Nevada’s economy.
“I am for the middle class,” he said. “We have a long ways to go, but we’ve made some progress, and I’ll continue to do everything I can.”
Angle had the money spot, and she milked it. “Why do I smile so much?” she said, grinning. “I’m an optimist, like Ronald Reagan, I believe in American exceptionalism.”
Angle outlined “simple solutions” with a lighthearted lilt in her voice — cut spending, pay back debt, repeal health care. She ended with a closer straight out of Politics 101. With a smiling shrug, she hit the cameras with: “I’m Sharron Angle, and I’m asking for your vote.”
It took awhile, but we eventually got to one of the big elephants in the policy room — taxes.
Angle supports a full extension of the Bush tax cuts, and Reid supports a limited extension — Obama’s plan to cut taxes on the first $250,000 of every family’s income (a plan that’s supposed to lower taxes for 97 percent of the country), saying anything more would up the deficit too much.
But the conversation turned personal quick.
Angle turned to the camera — the first time she took a direct shot at Reid — and said, “We can’t trust you with our taxes! You came from Searchlight to the Senate with very little, now you’re one of the richest men in the US Senate. On behalf of the Nevada taxpayers...how did you become so wealthy on a government payroll?”
Reid shook his head as he answered.
“Mitch, that’s really a low blow,” he said, as he explained his career as a lawyer and success investing his earnings. “I put my five kids through 100 semesters of school and I paid for every penny of it,” he said. “It’s really false, and I’m really disappointed that she would suggest that.”
Talking about the U.S.’s military commitments is one of the most emotional issues you can get to, and Reid and Angle aren’t immune to that.
Reid was asked about his comments that the Iraq War is lost and whether that demoralized the troops. He spoke of his accomplishments in helping the Iraqis become more independent, his friendship with Gen. Petraeus and his military and veterans’ endorsements.
Angle spoke of supporting the troops wholeheartedly, and then struck Reid with a zinger: “You need to apologize to them, senator!”
Reid took his retort straight to the camera, holding his hands together as if to summon patience. “I’ve been endorsed by the largest military organization in the country. My opponent wants to privatize the Veterans Administration.”
Social security — to privatize or not to privatize? There’s few subtleties here, in a debate that’s been raging since the Bush days.
Says Reid: “Don’t frighten people about social security — the deal was made by President Reagan...the money is there and will take care of our folks for the next 35 years.”
Angle: “Man up Harry Reid!” She then railed on Reid about the economy being in the red.
Reid: “That’s extreme!...We don’t offset the deficit with Social Security!”
Angle: “We’re in the red.”
Yucca Mountain — Nevada’s special local issue. Reid and Angle both oppose using it as a nuclear waste dump, but when it comes to what to do with it...there, they differ.
Angle spoke of coal plants and catching up to the technologies of the day. Reid appealed to a slightly less known project — power lines systems, most of which are based on renewables.
“There isn’t enough water in the whole state of Nevada to build a nuclear reactor,” Reid said to Angle, who has been reported to support such a project for Yucca.
Reid and Angle also briefly exchanged words on education, but no surprises there — Angle thinks the Department of Education is just skimming money from the schools. Reid doesn’t.
An interesting curve ball from Mitch set up the fourth set of questions: Who is your favorite Supreme Court justice?
Reid had a smart answer: Antonin Scalia, probably the most conservative judge presently on the bench. Why? “I don’t agree with his opinions, but he is a masterful mind. He is really an example to anyone who appreciates the law.”
Angle went with a more contentious choice: Clarence Thomas — not exactly the No. 1 choice of most women, given the Anita Hill scandal that shadowed his nomination to the bench. Why? “Because he understands his constitutional boundaries on the Supreme Court...not legislate from the bench.”
Fact: Half the fun of the Supreme Court is the live hearings. According to a New York Times study that came out a few years ago, Scalia is the most questioning and talkative judge. Thomas is the least; he says nothing.
The conversation then devolved into constitutionalism — a favorite in this election cycle. Reid attested that he carries a copy of the Constitution in his pocket (he did not whip it out).
Final question: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the military’s policy of not letting gays publicly serve in the military, which Reid attempted to attach to a defense authorization over the last few weeks in Washington. Angle criticized Reid, so he retorted: “She simply doesn’t understand what went on in Washington.” Ooh, direct hit — not ready to be senator?
Angle didn’t take that one sitting down. “It’s the wrong way to do legislation,” she retorted. “I do know the process, the process is: Read the bill first.”
Foreclosures and jobs: The two places where Nevadans, unfortunately, can say “we’re No. 1.”
No real surprises here. Reid defended his record of pushing a first-time homebuyer tax credits, getting Bank of America to issue a moratorium on foreclosures last week and regulating Wall Street: “They won’t be able to do to us what they did before.”
Angle took a dig that went unanswered by bucking the commonly-cited chronology: “The housing bubble was caused a long time before this recent recession,” she said. “This problem has been going on ever since Sen. Reid has been in leadership, before Obama.”
The moderator asked Angle about her claims that people can make more from unemployment than by going back to work, and that it wouldn’t be her job as a senator to create jobs. She responded that to get Nevadans back to work, she needs to set policies that encourage the private sector to do what they do best: Hire. Moderator: “So that’s a no.”
Another issue upon which Reid and Angle disagree vigorously: Health care.
The moderator opened by asking Reid why he first focused on health care and not foreclosures. After pointing out that wasn’t true (Congress passed a mortgage fraud law before health care, which came only at the beginning of 2010, a year into the 111th), Reid defended the health care reform, by saying it will reduce debt by $1.3 trillion.
Angle, making sure to call the health care law “Obamacare,” hit back with another powerful statistic — it’s taken half a million out of Medicare.
Reid retorted that Angle’s against mammograms, colonoscopies and funding care for autism.
Angle responded by saying she’s taught autistic kids and that the disorder needs its own insurance code.
But the big difference came when they were asked about insurance companies and abortion.
Insurance companies — should they be forced to cover anything? Angle said she trusts the free market. Reid scoffed at the idea of anyone trusting insurance companies to do the right thing by anyone.
And on abortion, should it be covered? Angle was very emphatic with her “no.” Reid had to be asked twice what he thought. Both times, he refused to move beyond the facts to the realm of opinion, saying only that the Hyde amendments (which prohibits federal funding of abortions) is part of the bill.
The first three questions were about immigration, an issue on which Reid and Angle couldn’t disagree more.
Reid defended his record on enforcement by talking about a law, passed in August, that put predator drones policing the border and more national guard troops on the border.
Angle then took the floor with a strong opener that will appeal to her base: “What we have is an illegal immigrant problem.”
She advocated that every state get a law enforcement leader like Sheriff Joe Arpaio — a controversial character who has advocated laws that have been characterized as racial profiling — and adopt a law like Arizona’s SB1070, not sue to stop it, as the Justice Department is doing.
She also directly accused Reid of allowing 11 foreign countries (also on the lawsuit) to dictate immigration policy in the United States and took ownership of one of the live-wire terms that’s been used against her in paid advertising, telling Reid “that’s just nuts!”
Reid got a bit of a dig in a few moments later, after Angle’s answer on a second immigration question rambled into Reid’s position on Social Security, which she thinks is an ineffective program, directly chastising her for not answering the question.
Final question on the subject: Make English the official language in the US? Angle: “yes.” Reid: “English is already the official language.”
First, the shallow stuff.
Sharron Angle, who won the coin toss, chose to stand on stage right – an appropriate position, given her conservative roots.
She also opted for a bright, fire-engine red suit —– in homage to the Republicans’ signature color perhaps?
Reid, meanwhile, also chose to wear red — his tie — with white flowers.
And now, the substance.
Reid was the first to give an opening statement. He started with stories about his father — “a big man” and a miner who often worked without pay during the Depression. He reminded Nevada of its history — “at the top of the economic food chain in Nevada for 20 years,” and now at the bottom of a deep hole.
Reid took direct aim at Angle with the following comment: “I believe my No. 1 job is to create jobs as a United States senator, that’s why I’ve worked very hard to do just that.” Angle has said she doesn’t think it’s her job as a Senator to create jobs.
Reid also spoke about reducing taxes for 95% of Nevadans, and on small businesses, eight times. He invited viewers to fact-check him on Facebook and Twitter.
Angle spoke of “the contrast” between her and Harry Reid, between big government and small government, and between constitutional government and unconstitutional laws (that Harry Reid has voted for, she said).
Angle criticized Reid for voting for the stimulus and “policies that have hurt Nevada,” which has the highest rates of foreclosure in the nation.
“Tonight you will see the difference between Harry Reid and big government and Sharron Angle and limited constitutional government,” she finished.
In the final hours before their first and only face-to-face debate, Harry Reid’s and Sharron Angle’s preparations have been as different as their politics.
For Reid, the experienced speaker, it’s been a day of ribbon cuttings.
For Angle, who is less used to a national stage, it’s been a day of preparing for her live moment.
For weeks, the candidates have been at each others’ throats in every sort of paid media imaginable, in what many commentators have called the most acrimonious — as well as most contentious — Senate race in the country.
They’ve called each other everything from “out of touch” to “extreme.” They’ve dredged through each others’ records, and they’ve toured the state, hoping to win over voters.
Little of it seems to have moved the polls. Angle leads Reid by about two points in the polls, but with a three-point margin of error, they are statistically neck and neck.
But tonight, instead of speaking about each other, they’ll be speaking to each other — for one hour, in sixty-second spurts.
For Angle, it’s her chance to show she has the gravitas and weight to take over a seat that’s been held by the Senate’s most powerful Democrat since 2004.
For Reid, it’s a chance to show that Angle’s not qualified for the heft of the Senate.
In the days before the debate, Angle’s campaign has been downplaying expectations — pointing out that Reid has much more experience and stressing that while Angle’s plain-spoken style of a “Reno grandmother” may not play out at the podium, that’s not what the race is all about.
The race has long since moved past local politics. The national Tea Party movement has honed in on Sharron Angle as its poster child and best bid to start ridding Washington of the ills they say have poisoned the country and worsened the recession.
For national Democrats, who are losing ground across the country, the race is a referendum — hold onto the leader of the Senate and you preserve some approval for the job that has been done.
Either way, the outcome of the election in Nevada will be a watershed for Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Partiers looking toward 2012.
But back to tonight.
Debates have been known to sway elections — especially when one candidate can outshine another. With Reid and Angle, there’s no obvious winner though. Both are prone to gaffes and neither is really known for a particularly infectious style at the podium.
But in this case, absent a major event, things may just plod along as normal.
The Reid-Angle race has quite an allure nationally — but in Nevada, residents are starting to reach a saturation point. And while about 10 percent of the population is still undecided — or pledging to vote “none of the above” — no one is sure exactly what may sway those voters.
In some ways, the scene outside the debates may be the most telling. Up until about an hour before the debate, national media outnumbered the candidates’ supporters gathered outside — Reid supporters stage left, Angle supporters stage right.