Reporting from Reno — Facing an irate electorate unsold on the new healthcare law, many Democrats have shied away from President Obama's signature domestic achievement on the campaign trail. Sen. Harry Reid has no such option.
The Senate majority leader has been credited with ushering the law through the fractious chamber, but also criticized for the deals that whipped up public acrimony and nearly derailed its passage, including what the GOP derided as the Louisiana Purchase and the Cornhusker Kickback.
So as portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act took effect last week, and the GOP revived calls to repeal the law, Reid's campaign began a series of healthcare-related attacks on his opponent, Republican Sharron Angle.
On Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius slammed Angle's opposition to state lawmakers requiring that insurance companies cover, among other things, autism treatment and colon cancer screenings.
"You don't want insurance companies picking and choosing who gets coverage and who doesn't," Sebelius said at a forum in Reno, where large blue signs proclaimed that Reid was "Standing Up to Big Insurance."
Reid's approach serves a dual purpose: to drive the debate on a thorny issue, since most Nevadans dislike the healthcare law, and to steer the Senate race away from the state's tattered economy and nation-leading 14.4% jobless rate.
"It's something he can score points on, which he can't on the economy," said David Damore, who teaches political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Anytime he's not talking about jobs and foreclosures, it's good for him, even if he's talking about an unpopular healthcare law."
Still, Reid's move allows Angle to label him as out of touch with Nevada and remind voters of his close ties to Obama, whose popularity here has sunk.
"Sharron sides with Nevadans and strongly supports repealing and replacing 'Obamacare,' while Harry Reid has totally ignored Nevadans in order to please President Obama," said her spokesman, Jarrod Agen.
Democrats nationwide have struggled to promote the healthcare law, whose messy passage and complexity frustrated voters and helped spur the small-government "tea party" movement.
In Nevada, healthcare reform has long been a potential quagmire for Reid. His approval ratings were already dismal, and libertarian-leaning voters balked at the legislation's vast reach. Liberals were dismayed enough with the law's lack of a "public option" that former President Clinton acknowledged their disappointment when he campaigned for Reid in June.
"This healthcare is not perfect, but if we hadn't passed this healthcare bill, we'd never get a system we're proud of," Clinton said. "We need to build on the good that's in this bill, not repeal it."
Last week, Democrats launched their initial healthcare volley against Angle, a tea party favorite who is tied with Reid in most polls. In video from a 2009 rally, Angle referred to the Nevada Legislature's passage of a bill requiring insurance companies to cover treatment for autism and related disorders.
"Take off the mandates for coverage in the state of Nevada and all over the United States. … You're paying for things you don't even need. They just passed the latest one ... everything that they want to throw at us now is covered under 'autism,' " Angle said, emphasizing the word with air quotes.
Though Reid's aides suggested Angle was mocking autism's validity as a disorder, her spokesman said she was merely criticizing "costly unfunded government mandates that drive up the cost of health insurance and reduce the level of care." That dovetails with Angle's philosophy that government should have as little role as possible in private industry.
Also last week, Reid aired a TV ad highlighting Angle's vote, as a state lawmaker, against requiring insurers to cover colonoscopies if they were providing treatment for colon cancer. " Colon cancer kills, unless you catch it early," intones the announcer, adding that Angle opposes "making insurance companies cover colon cancer tests, mammograms or anything else."
On Monday, Sebelius headlined the Reno forum, which included a breast cancer survivor and a pediatrician who pounded Angle's free-market approach as callous. Russ Steele, a 37-year-old Reno accountant, told the group that before Nevada passed its autism law, it had been difficult to get treatment for his 5-year-old son, Brendan, who has trouble communicating verbally.
A longtime Democrat, Steele had been disappointed that the healthcare law didn't include a public option, but found Reid's opponent an unpalatable choice.
"I question why Angle's sticking up for the big insurance companies," he said.