Angle campaign takes delight in Reid statements

Two weeks into U.S. Sen. Harry Reid's homecoming Senate break to campaign for re-election, the Democratic incumbent has managed to make more than a few people mad.

They include Hispanics who are Republicans, Southern Nevada Muslim leaders who don't understand why he opposes a mosque project near ground zero in New York City, and liberal members of his own party who disagree with him on the sensitive question nine years after Sept. 11 .

Taking delight in this development are Republicans and GOP opponent Sharron Angle, who have turned the tables for the first time after two months of being on the defensive.

Saying the site of the Twin Towers terror attacks is hallowed ground, Angle dared Reid to declare his position on the mosque after President Barack Obama said Muslims had a First Amendment right to build a $100 million Islamic center just two blocks away.

Reid took the bait just hours after her Monday morning challenge. He sided with Angle and Republicans against Obama, becoming the highest-ranking Democrat to split with the president on the matter. All week, Reid was mocked by conservatives, while being criticized by liberals as "weak" and "cowardly."

"Nice of you to join us," Angle wrote to Reid on Twitter.

The mosque debate over­shadowed Reid's low-key events and continuing attacks on Angle, and came days after he told Hispanic supporters, "I don't know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican" because the GOP has blocked his efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

What's become clear is that Angle and the GOP, like Reid and the Democrats, are now geared up to exploit any inflammatory statement or provocative position for advantage. Until recently, it's been Angle who's been on the defensive for comments about "phasing out" Social Security and for bringing religion into a race that polls show as a dead heat.

"This is what we all suspected would happen: that Reid's proclivity for saying impolitic or controversial things would create an opportunity for whoever his opponent was," said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. "Why did it happen? Because he's home and he's on the campaign trail all the time, so the odds of him getting off message are significantly greater."

In the end, the distractions may not matter much with Nevada voters more worried about their deep economic problems. Angle squarely blames Reid, who argues the $787 billion stimulus and other Democratic measures have prevented the 2-year-old recession from becoming even worse.

"Angle scored some short-term points, but it also gets her off her main message, which is the economy and the foreclosures," said Dave Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Things are still bottoming out and there's frustration out there."

But a fresh bit of bad economic news on Friday gave Angle a chance to hit on her main campaign theme again when Nevada's unemployment rate hit another record high -- 14.3 percent statewide in July and 14.8 percent in Las Vegas -- as the state topped the nation for joblessness.

"Harry Reid is directly to blame for today's unemployment rates," Angle said in a statement. "He has voted for tax increases over 300 times, rammed Obamacare through the Senate, and as we speak, he is freezing the jobs market and keeping small businesses from hiring by fighting an extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

"Despite his position as majority leader, Harry Reid has failed to help our state, and the growing number of people who have lost their jobs this month are a tragic sign of his failure."   

Reid said the bad news was "further proof of why we need to continue our work to create jobs and diversify Nevada's economy." He pointed to a clean-energy transmission line from White Pine County to Clark County that he said would put thousands of Nevadans to work in the future. He also pointed to tax breaks for businesses who hire unemployed workers and a small-business jobs bill.

"We are cutting taxes and taking steps to make it easier for Nevada businesses to put more Nevadans to work," Reid said in a statement released shortly after the new numbers came out.

Reid can't do much to control the drumbeat of bad economic news expected to continue through Election Day with Nevada businesses reluctant to hire and local governments also suffering .

But until his recent return to the trail, Reid's campaign has largely been able to control the narrative of the Senate race, successfully portraying the staunch conservative Angle as too extreme for Nevada. The label seems to be sticking as Reid's people keep finding fresh fodder on the Tea Party pick.

Angle took away one of Reid's talking points -- that she's running from the mainstream press -- by doing interviews this past week with major outlets such as The New York Times and Politico.

Meanwhile, Reid was limiting questions from reporters and ignoring those he didn't want to answer as he went from one carefully controlled forum to another to talk about the environment at Lake Tahoe, clean energy projects in Nevada and a new USO lounge at McCarran International Airport.

"We haven't been distracted from the message," said Reid campaign adviser Billy Vassiliadis. "Messaging these days is just not just what's in the newspaper. It's what's on the blogs and the Internet and in the paid messaging (TV ads). Ninety percent has been exactly what we've wanted to talk about. We're feeling like this campaign is going in the direction we wanted it to go and hoped it would go."

While Reid surrounds himself with supporters, his campaign keeps Angle in its sharp sights .

This past week, the Reid campaign started selling black T-shirts and mocking Angle for reportedly citing religious grounds to oppose the Tonopah High football team's wish to wear black jerseys instead of the school's red and white colors for a 1992 game. The coach wanted to inspire players to remember the "blackest day" in the team's history for a rematch with a foe they had lost to the year before.

"Angle's rationale for denying teenagers the right to wear black football uniforms because she believes they're Satanic is emblematic of her entire world view," Reid spokesman Kelly Steele said.

Angle denied the un­confirmed story that popped up in an Aug. 13 column in the Pahrump Valley Times by Bill Roberts, a registered Democrat and former editor and owner of the Tonopah Times-Bonanza & Goldfield News. He alleged Angle was part of a group opposing the black jerseys because the color "was thoroughly evil, invoking the supernatural and especially the devil."

Angle ran for Nye County School Board in 1992 and the issue wasn't part of her winning campaign. She said her son, who also played on the football team at the time, told her there was talk of adding black to the uniforms after a coach died, but she doesn't remember anything about it.

"I have no recollection of this, and truly, what does this have to do with our jobs, our homes, and our economy," Angle said Thursday in an interview with radio talk show host Michael Medved.

Rod Pekarek, assistant super­intendent of the Nye County School District, was an administrator in Tonopah at the time. He said he doesn't recall Angle being involved either.

"I know there was something going on about changing the colors, but I don't remember the particulars. It wasn't a big deal," Pekarek said in an inter­view, adding he later knew Angle when she served on the school board from 1993 until 1996 because he attended every meeting.

More seriously, the Reid campaign continued to hammer Angle on Social Security. It accused her in a new TV ad of trying to run away from her previous statements that she wants the system "transitioned out" and allow Americans to open private retirement accounts instead.

"Sharron Angle's new D.C. handlers will do or say anything to obscure her plans to kill Social Security," Reid campaign spokesman Kelly Steele said. "Unfortunately for Angle's new handlers, her iron-clad public commitment to dismantle Social Security before their arrival confirms their latest efforts to re-create Sharron Angle for exactly what they are -- politically expedient lies."

Angle has been battling back by spending an unprecedented amount on ads -- more than $500,000 last week alone -- including one where she tells seniors she wants to "save" Social Security by restoring $2.5 trillion in its trust fund that Reid has "raided" to pay for his "pet projects."

Angle's stance on putting money back into the trust fund has been consistent throughout her campaign. She also has always said seniors and others who paid payroll taxes into Social Security wouldn't have their benefits cut, or the rug pulled out from under them, as she has put it.

But under Reid's unrelenting attacks, Angle has backed off from her early calls to phase out Social Security in favor of a private system, an idea most Republicans reject as well.

Now, Angle says people should be able to "opt out" of Social Security and send their payroll tax deductions to personal accounts like some federal workers and members of Congress do. She argues that without a fix, the system will go broke -- by 2037, according to the latest estimates.

"When we have a $2.5 trillion raid and pillaging going on, an empty trust fund, and now we are upside down -- $41 billion less coming in than going out -- it is broken," Angle said last week.

Duffy of the Cook Political Report said the Senate race is "kind of fascinating" to watch because both Reid and Angle are not popular with Nevada voters and both are prone to gaffes.

"It explains, in part, why this race is so close," Duffy said. "Even though Angle has made so many mistakes and created so much controversy, the fact that Reid isn't pulling away tells us that this race isn't about her. It's still about him."

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers or 702-387-2919.