RENO — After Sharron Angle scored a come-from-behind victory in June's U.S. Senate primary, political observers wondered if she'd cool her fiery rhetoric in hopes of ousting Harry Reid, the unpopular but well-funded Nevada Democrat who has shepherded President Obama's agenda.
Angle had called for scrapping Social Security, dismissed entitlement programs as "idolatry," and urged elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency -- the type of positions that served her well as a state lawmaker in a heavily Republican district but were viewed as potentially too divisive for a statewide race.
She has since tried to watch her tongue, sort of. But her campaign has mostly tested the broader appeal of "tea party" values -- and Christian conservatism -- in an economically ailing swing state.
The contest has become one of the most closely watched in the nation, pitting Reid -- the Senate majority leader and arguably the GOP's top symbolic target in November -- against a former state lawmaker who championed fiscal prudence long before the tea party movement existed.
If any state is amenable to tossing out a powerful incumbent, it's likely Nevada, which soared on a tourism and construction boom that abruptly crashed. Given the 14.2% jobless rate -- the nation's highest -- and Reid's abysmal polling, political observers have joked that even an Elvis impersonator could unseat him.
"The only thing he's delivered for Nevada is hardship," crowed an Angle ad released last week.
To many primary voters, Angle appeared a perfect antidote to Reid, -- a symbol of federal power in a state that deeply resents it. A petite, soft-spoken former teacher, Angle wooed voters with relentless door-knocking and grandmotherly warmth, and the backing of deep-pocketed conservative groups.
"You know, I feel a little lonely today," she said while accepting the endorsement of the Tea Party Express in April, "I usually bring Smith and Wesson along, and I have to tell you I'm going to give Washington, D.C., a lesson in the Constitution, especially the 2nd Amendment."
Angle enjoyed a post-primary bounce; now the race is considered a tossup. With five times more cash on hand, Reid has hammered Angle as "just too extreme" in a series of television commercials that, in effect, have turned her words against her.
"She gave Reid the opportunity to define her as something of a nut bar," said Ted G. Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Angle, who declined to be interviewed, brought on a new communications director last week amid a flurry of news reports about her views on social issues: She has said gays should be barred from adopting children, for example, and that Democrats, by expanding entitlement programs, were trying to "make government our God."
"She's not a typical politician and she's not going to speak in canned statements," said spokesman Jarrod Agen. "The election is not going to come down to sound bites here and there. The election is going to come back to the economy and jobs."
Her campaign has argued that it's Reid and Obama who are out of touch, with their focus on healthcare and financial regulatory reform at a time of stubbornly high unemployment.
"I would say to you that my positions are very much ... representative of mainstream America," Angle said at the recent state Republican convention.
But afterward, when reporters clamored for further explanation of a statement that "2nd Amendment remedies" might be a solution should control of Congress not change, one of Angle's new handlers quickly cut her off.
Angle, 61, has never before needed to soften her rhetoric or court independent voters.
In the northern Nevada city of Winnemucca, where she lived for years, she gathered signatures to protest Roe vs. Wade, harangued store owners into covering nudie magazines, and opened a small Christian school that, according to former teacher Glenda Haley, taught creationism as fact.
Angle moved to Tonopah, served on the county school board in the early '90s and worked to get the conservative Independent American Party a spot on the ballot. A petition she signed said the party believed in doing away with foreign aid, the IRS and "the Marxist graduated income tax," and called the U.S. government tyrannical. She eventually switched to the Republican Party.
"Sharron wanted to get elected," said Christopher Hansen, a former state IAP chairman. "She sold out her principles for power."
Angle represented a Reno-area district in the state Legislature for four terms. She sponsored a failed bill that would have required doctors to tell women seeking abortions that the procedure could increase their risk of breast cancer, and floated the idea of Nevada prisons using massage to help drug-addicted female inmates -- a program Scientologists have advocated.