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Little new in Harry Reid, Sharron Angle debate to sway undecided voters

Reid, Angle stay on their messages, continue attacks on each other in sole TV debate

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Sharron Angle and Sen. Harry Reid take part in a debate moderated by Mitch Fox at the Vegas PBS studios Thursday, October 14, 2010.

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 »

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U.S. Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Harry Reid had clear-cut strategies in their lone joint appearance before an audience of mainstream voters this campaign.

Angle, the Republican, sought to use Thursday’s televised debate to buck the constructed image of her as an extreme conservative. Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, sought to convince voters he understands their economic plight, and defend the policies that so far have failed to generate a significant recovery in Nevada.

Neither candidate, analysts agreed, was able to deliver that perfect message capable of wrenching away their opponent’s supporters or moving undecided voters into their column.

“I wish I knew how undecided voters are thinking right now, but I just don’t think this debate moved anybody off the fence,” Republican strategist Robert Uithoven said. “I don’t think she made any catastrophic mistakes and I’m not so sure he did either.”

In a scene more reminiscent of a presidential debate than a U.S. Senate contest, more than 100 reporters from six countries crowded the studio. Almost every radio and television station in the state broadcast it live. Organizers estimated a half million people tuned in, including a nationwide audience via C-SPAN.

The candidates, who for weeks have been at each other’s throats via the airwaves, continued their lines of attack during the debate, drawing significant distinctions on nearly every policy issue.

• On immigration: Reid wants comprehensive reform including a pathway to citizenship; Angle said “illegal aliens” need to be dealt with aggressively and the borders fortified.

• On taxes: Angle wants the Bush tax cuts extended and refused to acknowledge that extending them would expand the deficit; Reid wants the cuts extended for the middle class and stopped short of calling for a repeal of the cuts for “billionaires.”

• On Social Security: Reid believes the program is financially sound for decades; Angle wants a “personalized account” system.

The debate’s tight format — candidates had only 60 seconds for responses — allowed little leeway to stray off message and into gaffe territory.

Both candidates did, however, attempt flashy one-liners, although Angle relied on them more often than Reid.

“Man up, Harry Reid,” Angle exclaimed when Reid refused to acknowledge the financial challenges she said are confronting Social Security. “You need to apologize,” she said, after Reid deflected a question about whether his comment that the Iraq war was lost had demoralized the troops.

Angle’s one-liners were reminiscent of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s strategy in her 2008 debate with Vice President Joe Biden.

“But she didn’t deliver them quite as well,” Democratic strategist Dan Hart quipped.

Angle had the more aggressive strategy, including seizing an opening to accuse Reid of growing rich on his salary as a senator. “I’d like to know — we’d like to know — how did you become so wealthy on government payroll,” Angle said.

Reid seemed prepared for that line of attack, dismissing it by referring to his time as a “very successful lawyer” in the private sector.

Hart noted that Angle’s aggressive tactics could have come across as “desperate.”

“She certainly was taking more chances than Sen. Reid,” he said.

Reid remained mostly calm through the debate, opting to speak directly into the camera, rather than address Angle.

Even upon entering the studio before the debate, Reid concentrated almost exclusively on his notes. Angle at one point stared at Reid for about half a minute, appearing as if she expected him to look back at her.

Only when the 10-second countdown began did Reid look up. He turned his head to Angle, flashed her a smile, then stared straight into the camera.

Uithoven noted Reid appeared to remember halfway through the debate that his aim was to paint Angle as unacceptable to voters.

“They both seemed uncomfortable at the beginning, but I think they settled into their messages,” he said. “Harry Reid probably remembered 15 minutes in that he needed to say ‘extreme’ a little more than he had.”

Both candidates missed key opportunities, analysts said.

Reid fell short of targeting some of his most important constituencies: senior citizens, Hispanics and veterans.

Angle failed to drive home her central campaign theme: that Reid is responsible for Nevadans’ economic suffering.

The issue that emerged as the central sticking point of the night was health care. Of all the Democratic initiatives, Reid spent the most time defending the new health care law, returning to clarify his position on the third-rail issue when he could grab an extra second as the conversation ricocheted from the Iraq war to taxes.

“We had to do health insurance reform to maintain competitiveness in the world economy and create jobs,” he said.

Angle deflected Reid’s accusation that she opposes mandated coverage of illnesses such as breast and colon cancer and autism by saying she believes the free market would “weed out” those insurance companies that did not offer coverage demanded by consumers.

To which Reid responded: “Insurance companies don’t do things out of the goodness of their heart. They almost destroyed our economy.”

All in all, analysts said Angle succeeded in undermining Reid’s portrayal of her as too “extreme and dangerous,” by avoiding some of the sharper rhetoric that characterized her efforts in the GOP campaign.

“Anyone who had bought into that narrative could not have come away tonight believing she is an extremist,” Uithoven said.

And Reid, his supporters said, demonstrated a “fire in the belly” they thought has been lacking in his performance so far this campaign.

“That is about as good as I’ve seen Harry Reid,” Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said. “He had a sparkle in his eye and he was articulate. He was so into this debate.”

Sun reporters Karoun Demirjian and Delen Goldberg contributed to this story.

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