Saturday, June 9, 2012 | 5:58 p.m.
Nevada Democrats rallied at their state convention Saturday, girding for what they believe will be a difficult fight for the White House and U.S. Senate.
In speech after speech, Democrats echoed the same themes: jobs for the middle class, fighting for equal pay for women, demonizing the Republican opposition.
They were preaching to their own choir of activists and volunteers, the ground troops they will rely upon in November.
But even as the election draws nearer, the fire in the belly of those activists appears to have dimmed under the pressure of the still-struggling economy, a deadlocked Congress that has failed to produce results on President Barack Obama’s promises and the approach of a well-funded Republican presidential campaign that no longer is mired in an ugly primary battle.
The convention crowd dutifully cheered the applause lines in their candidates’ speeches, and booed on cue when they took aim at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller.
But the overall sense of the convention appeared to be one of going through the mechanics of a rally. The general sense was more of foreboding than excitement for the campaign ahead.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said Marion Bell, a Las Vegas Democrat. “I know it’s going to be a fight. It’s going to be very tight all the way to the finish and it’s going to be scary to watch. I want to just close my eyes and wait for it to be over.
“But I’m a firm believer in prayer. I think it will be OK.”
Sen. Harry Reid implored the crowd to “commit to doing something every day that will help re-elect Barack Obama.
“The state of Nevada has been through hard times, really hard times,” Reid said. “So with only 149 days left, everyone needs to get involved.”
Reid described Obama as handling the presidency with a “quiet courage.”
“Despite the obstruction in Congress that I see, we see, every day, his astute decision making has created 4.3 million private-sector jobs.”
Later, after his speech, Reid echoed Obama’s insistence that more attention be given to “public-sector jobs.”
In a slip that Republicans quickly pounced on this week, Obama said during a press conference that the “private sector is doing fine.” He later walked the comment back, saying it’s clear the economy is hurting, but said job losses and state budget crises will continue to be a drag on the economy.
“There’s lots of things we can do to create jobs and put some of our public-sector people back to work,” Reid said.
Asked why the focus on government jobs instead of private-sector jobs, Reid said, “I don’t think we have to beat up government.”
He noted the possibility that up to 1,000 Clark County teachers will be laid off this year.
“Can anyone say we have too many teachers? I don’t think so,” he said. “Can anyone say we have too many police officers? Too many infrastructure jobs?”
Berkley, who is locked in a tight Senate race with Heller, walked a narrow path in responding to Obama’s comment on the private sector, declining to criticize him outright, but pointing to the contrary reality.
“Particularly in states like Nevada, we are going through very, very tough times,” she said. “We’ve made progress but we have a long way to go.”
In an interview after her speech, Berkley seemed on the defensive when asked about whether she is standing with Obama more frequently.
Berkley also began to address questions dogging her campaign over the ongoing House ethics committee investigation into whether she used the influence of her elected position to help her family’s business interests.
She declined to speculate on the outcome of the investigation — the committee is expected to announce in July whether it will move forward with the probe.
But she said she was motivated by protecting patient care when she joined with then-Reps. Dean Heller and Jon Porter to lobby to keep the kidney transplant center open at University Medical Center in 2008.
Her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a kidney doctor whose medical firm provides kidney care at UMC.
“I know what the three of us did to protect patient care,” Berkley said. “I know what happened.”
Berkley wrote a letter, also signed by Porter and Heller, to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, petitioning them to keep the transplant center open. If it had closed, Berkley said Las Vegas kidney patients would have been forced to travel to California for transplants.
“I think it was the right thing to do, to work together to keep that center open,” she said. “My only concern was patient care in Nevada. I wasn’t thinking of myself.”
At the time, Lehrner’s firm had a $738,000 contract with the medical center to provide kidney care.
But that letter isn’t the only time she lobbied on kidney care issues, according to an investigative piece in The New York Times.
Berkley also wrote a letter to the chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Medicare, “warning him to move carefully in considering changes in compensating doctors who provide dialysis treatments.”
Heller and Porter did not sign on to that letter.
Despite the drag the ethics investigation is having on Berkley’s campaign, Reid said he’s confident she will do well.
Berkley’s race is one of three that Reid said he is focused on, noting that his pollster — the only one to correctly gauge Reid’s 2010 race against Sharron Angle — recently found her leading Heller by 2 points.
“We’re doing very well in the Senate races” despite heavy spending by “very rich old men,” Reid said in a jab at super PAC-funding millionaires.