Reporting from Las Vegas — The Nevada Senate debate Thursday night between Democratic incumbent Harry Reid and Republican rival Sharron Angle played out as testily as the pair's numerous attack ads, with the candidates clashing over taxes, the environment, healthcare and how best to create jobs.
Moreover, Reid and Angle peppered the discussion with personal digs. Reid repeatedly called his opponent "extreme," while Angle dinged the Senate majority leader's upscale Washington condominium and questioned how he had acquired his wealth, which Reid called "kind of a low blow." At one point, when goading him to admit Social Security was financially troubled, Angle added, "Man up, Harry Reid."
The candidates broke little new ground on policy, as the razor-close race offers Nevada voters a stark contrast: Reid, the four-term senator, majority leader and face of President Obama's agenda, versus Angle, a "tea party" favorite and upset winner of the Republican primary who advocates small-as-possible government.
Even the candidates' demeanors were poles apart: Reid was professorial and so soft-spoken that the audience at the Las Vegas PBS studio strained to hear him. Angle's default facial expression was a broad smile.
Angle, whom Reid has portrayed as an extremist — even issuing a Web video called "Sharron Angle's Crazy Juice" — came across as competent, which analysts said might be all she needed to do. Reid at times spoke forcefully, particularly when he felt Angle had distorted his record.
The pair's sole debate was noteworthy in that the gaffe-prone and press-averse candidates were pushed to answer for some of their controversial statements and tactics, resulting in some sparks.
An early question addressed an Angle ad that includes images of ominous-looking Latinos and says Reid voted to give Social Security and tax breaks to undocumented immigrants, claims that independent fact-checkers have mostly disavowed. With Nevada's sizable Latino population and anemic economy, immigration has loomed large in the race.
Angle embraced the ad, and said she was "glad to give voters the opportunity to see that Harry Reid has voted to give Social Security to illegal aliens."
"Everything she has said in that ad is false; it is not true," he said.
She said the solution to immigration was to secure the border. She also touted the Arizona sheriff who has cracked down on illegal immigrants.
"I think every state should have a sheriff like Joe Arpaio," she said.
When the questions shifted to the healthcare overhaul — or "Obamacare," as Angle derided it — the discussion referenced one of Reid's key lines of attack: that Angle would deny patients procedures such as colonoscopies because of her opposition to insurance mandates.
"What we have here is a choice between the free market and Americanism.... We don't have to force anyone to buy anything," Angle said, agreeing that she would not force companies to cover specific disorders.
Meanwhile, Reid contended that without a nudge from the government, the severely ill would be denied coverage. "Insurance companies don't do things out of the goodness of their hearts; they do it because of the profit motive," he said.
The candidates also tackled the issue dominating Nevada: the economy. The once high-flying state is racked by foreclosures and leads the nation in unemployment. Talk of solutions has been noticeably absent on the campaign trail, as Angle and Reid each have instead jumped on the other's lightning-rod statements.
As with other issues, the pair were divided on the proper role of government, with Reid touting Obama's stewardship of the economy and Angle saying Washington should back off.
"Harry Reid, it's not your job to create jobs. It's your job to create confidence to get the private sector to create jobs," she said, a response she has repeatedly used to push back at Reid's torrent of ads.
Reid, once again, said her position was extreme.