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jon ralston:

Thoughts on the Reid-Angle debate

Reid Angle Debate - Oct. 14 2010

Sharron Angle and Sen. Harry Reid exchange pleasantries after their debate, moderated by Mitch Fox, center, on Thursday at the Vegas PBS studios. Launch slideshow »

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first:

Sharron Angle won The Big Debate.

Angle won because she looked relatively credible, appearing not to be the Wicked Witch of the West (Christine O’Donnell is the good witch of the Tea Party) and scoring many more rhetorical points. And she won because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid looked as if he could barely stay on a linear argument, abruptly switching gears and failing to effectively parry or thrust.

Whether the debate affects the outcome — I believe very few Nevadans are undecided — it also perfectly encapsulated the race: An aging senator who has mastered the inside political game but fundamentally does not seem to care about his public role (and is terrible at it) versus an ever-smiling political climber who can deliver message points but sometimes changes her message or denies a previous one even existed.

Look upon these works, ye mighty, and despair.

As I watched the debate, I felt all the years that Nevada has striven to surmount its seamy image fading away as the nation watched this sad spectacle. As Slate’s John Dickerson wryly put it on Twitter: “After watching the Nevada Senate debate I really wish that what happens in Vegas could stay in Vegas.”

I know we Nevadans get our backs up when the national media condescends. We are a proud bunch; we love our state. But as I surveyed the post-mortems in the 140-character world, where concision often yields brutal truth, you could almost sense the head-shaking as the national types opined:

NBC’s Chuck Todd: “Reid’s problem tonight is that while Angle wasn’t great, his performance made her look passable.”

Politico’s Dave Catanese: “Utterly subpar.”

Political Wire’s Taegan Goddard: “Reid didn’t knock out Angle but she had him on the ropes. Have to give the edge to Angle ...”

Political writer Taylor Marsh may have summed it up best: “Sharron Angle passed the ‘I’m not crazy test’ with flying colors. Focused too. This lady just might pull this off. Reid didn’t take her out.”

But did he take himself out, once and for all, with his dismissiveness, his sarcastic and loopy use of “my friend” and Senatese, his shifting of subjects in the middle of thoughts, beginning with his opening statements?

It is difficult to say beyond CSPAN watchers being appalled across the country — and probably sending checks to The $14 Million Woman as they watched — if the debate had any electoral effect. But Reid, as he did with a veterinarian named John Ensign 12 years ago, seemed almost in disbelief that he was on the same stage with Angle. If it was possible, I think he would have had a Bush 41 look-at-my-watch moment.

There was much revisionist history in the debate by both candidates, but, as usual, mostly from Angle. Reid called a man he once all but called a liar (Gen. David Petraeus) and a man he did call a liar and loser (Bush 43) his friends. But he also used that collegial term to refer to Angle, as if he were speaking to some senator he despises (they do that on the floor).

But Angle, as she often does, when confronted with previous positions from abolishing the Education Department to phasing out Social Security and Medicare, just plows ahead as if her reinvention project is perfectly believable. If she says she never said it, maybe she never did — unless, as has so often happens but could not Thursday, someone plays Warner Wolf and goes to the videotape.

The most striking example was when moderator Mitch Fox asked her about calling the unemployed “spoiled.” Angle claimed Reid “mischaracterized” what she had said. What? She has apologized for making the comment.

My guess, though, is no one noticed as Reid didn’t point that out (hello, debate prep) and didn’t effectively deconstruct many of her automaton-like message points. She just kept coming and coming — Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare — the Tea Party’s and Nevada’s Energizer Bunny who never, ever stops running.

I still find it incredible that more has not been made of Angle’s most egregious statement this campaign — and it didn’t even come up Thursday — which was her assertion in Mesquite this month that Sharia law had been imposed in two American cities, one of which doesn’t even exist. This Muslim-baiting, noxious construction has been ignored by all but a few news outlets (kudos to CNN), and her answer is almost more astounding: She read it somewhere so she repeated it.

That is crazy, folks. But that’s not how she came across Thursday, as Reid failed to call her on that and many other topics, making it more likely he has to make an unthinkable call to her on Election Night.

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