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Take him on at your own risk

Harry Reid isn't beloved, but he brings home the bacon. He also plays

March 07, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak

CARSON CITY, NEV. — When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came home recently to address the Nevada Legislature, a small but vocal band of Republican protesters gathered at the state Capitol. They waved signs, razzed Democrats and marched outside.

But the group fell silent when asked the chances of ousting Reid at the polls next year. "It's going to be tough," demonstrator Carol Howell, 65, finally said.

Inside, Reid illustrated one reason why. Speaking to a bipartisan group of lawmakers, he touted hundreds of millions of dollars headed for Nevada under the economic stimulus legislation he helped push through Congress.

"There's so much good stuff in there that wouldn't have been there but for me," Reid said in an interview beforehand. "And I don't mean to say that in any boastful manner. That's just the way it is."

Reid may be the most powerful Democrat in the U.S. Senate (and, arguably, in Nevada history). His clout, as he showed, is quantifiable. But Reid's political strength creates a paradox: His power and prominence have turned him into one of the top targets for Republicans nationwide, who are eager to topple him the way they ousted the Senate's last Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

In January, the Republican Party launched its first TV ad of the 2010 campaign, a 30-second spot that aired in Reno and attacked "super-spending partisan Harry Reid." Across the country, conservative groups have formed with the express purpose of denying the Senate leader a fifth term.

Now Republicans just need to find a serious candidate to face Reid, a task that has proved difficult -- surprisingly so, given his middling poll ratings, a history of combustible comments (despite his starchy demeanor) and his notable lack of warmth or charisma.

"You can't beat somebody with nobody," said Chuck Muth, a GOP strategist in Carson City. "His degree of vulnerability depends entirely on the quality of the Republican opposition."

Like Daschle, Reid hails from a heavily rural state with a strong conservative bent. A teetotaling Mormon still wed to his high school girlfriend, Reid, 69, is a relative moderate compared with many fellow Democrats. He opposes legal abortion and most gun control measures, sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, and voted for both wars in Iraq. (He has since become a fierce critic of the second.) But his leadership role in Washington -- mainly as one of President George W. Bush's chief antagonists -- cast Reid in a far more liberal light than his voting record might suggest.

He insists that the Daschle comparison only goes so far, and many in his home state agree. In a feat of epic political engineering, Reid has helped transform Nevada over the last few years from a GOP stronghold to a state that overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in November and where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a healthy 100,000-plus voters. (Last year's caucuses, pushed forward on the presidential calendar at Reid's behest, were a wildly successful recruiting and organizing tool.)

More significantly, Reid has taken a scythe to the opposition, lopping off two of his likely challengers before they could position themselves to run; Rep. Jon Porter and state Sen. Joe Heck both lost reelection bids in 2008, with Reid operatives playing a key role. A third challenger, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, was indicted in December by the state's Democratic attorney general just days after expressing an interest in taking on Reid.

The senator denies any involvement in the fraud case, but the timing only enhanced his intimidating reputation, giving others pause about entering the race.

"Harry Reid plays hardball," said Eric Herzik, who heads the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. "He's more feared than he's loved."

Indeed, passion is not a word readily associated with the dour, silver-haired senator. Standing before a group of bankers at a resort casino in Las Vegas, Reid was swallowed up by the cavernous ballroom, his low monotone difficult to make out even with the help of amplification. His remarks -- on the stimulus, his parents' hard times during the Depression, a Bruce Springsteen song -- meandered, and his delivery suggested nothing so much as a man slowly working his way through a bowl of gruel.

But when he speaks, he often refers to his importance back in Washington. "As I was coming into Mandalay Bay, I received a phone call from the president on Air Force One," he tells the bankers, hours before Obama announced he was sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Speaking to reporters after his Carson City speech, Reid mentions "conversations I had this morning" with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. He tells a Reno TV station of a chat with White House Budget Director Peter R. Orszag and promises that "Yucca Mountain's gone." Days later, the administration unveiled a budget that effectively killed the nuclear waste dump, which Nevada has fought for decades.

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