The aggressor in their only debate, GOP challenger Sharron Angle on Thursday attacked U.S. Sen. Harry Reid as a man of privilege who lives in the Ritz-Carlton and made millions while raising taxes on people more than 300 times.
Reid called the charge that he made his money while on the government payroll a "low blow." He countered by portraying Angle as "extreme" and heartless for wanting to let insurance companies set their own rules instead of mandating coverage for mammograms, colon screening and autism.
During the live, nationally televised faceoff, the two traded sharp charges of lying in their TV campaign ads and on the trail about everything from immigration to jobs to Social Security.
"Man up, Harry Reid," Angle said at one point. "We have a problem with Social Security."
"The ideas of my opponent are really extreme," Reid said in another stinging exchange.
The in-studio debate at Vegas PBS comes at a key point in the high-stakes Senate race, just before early voting starts Saturday and as Angle and Reid are locked in a dead heat in the polls. The Senate majority leader is in danger of losing his seat to the Tea Party favorite, and both his Democratic Party and her GOP backers are pouring millions of dollars into the race to the finish.
Neither Reid nor Angle committed obvious major gaffes in the debate sponsored by the Nevada Broadcasters Association, so it won't likely be a game changer in the race. Instead, it served to show Angle to viewers who haven't seen her in person and allowed Reid to display his grasp of the issues.
"Sharron Angle did not, overall, come across as extreme or dangerous as Reid's campaign would have liked," said Mark Peplowski, political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada. "Harry did a good job of remaining calm, not attacking and referring to her as 'my friend' " to appear less harsh.
Reid, 70, opened the debate by reminding viewers that he came from the rural town of Searchlight, where his father was a hard-rock miner and his mother took in laundry from prostitutes.
"So I have some idea of what it's like to struggle," Reid said, a line from his stump speech aimed at Nevada's record unemployed, who number about 200,000 in the nation's hardest-hit state.
Angle, whose quavering voice betrayed nerves at the start, appealed to Nevadans who might not know the 61-year-old's personal story but instead have seen her only through Reid's negative ads.
"I'm not a career politician," said Angle, although she is a former Reno assemblywoman who has run for higher office, too. "I'm a mother and a grandmother. I live in a middle-class neighborhood in Reno, Nevada."
From there, the niceties were set aside. Angle finished her two-minute opening statement by contrasting her middle- class life with Reid's, saying he "lives in the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C.," adding that Reid "voted 300 times to raise taxes" and saying she voted against taxes in the Assembly.
Under the hour-debate format, moderator Mitch Fox of Vegas PBS asked the questions, some of which came from those sent in by TV viewers and radio listeners. The candidates each had one minute to respond, and the first to go had 30 seconds to make a rebuttal.
In his initial questioning, Fox asked the candidates about illegal immigration, asking Reid why he did not address border security before this year. Reid said he favors comprehensive immigration reform and not just piecemeal solutions, although Congress did approve $600 million to boost security.
Angle hit Reid by first praising Arizona's law that gives police more authority to stop illegal immigrants and then by attacking Reid for supporting the federal government's lawsuit to block the state law. She noted that 11 other countries had joined the U.S. lawsuit.
Reid has "allowed 11 foreign countries to dictate our immigration law. That's just nuts," Angle said smiling, employing a term that the Democratic incumbent's campaign has used against her.
Fox then challenged Angle on the truth of her ads on illegal immigration, including her claims that Reid voted to give illegal immigrants Social Security benefits.
Angle stood by the commercial, arguing that Reid had voted to give "Social Security to illegal aliens ... not only after they become citizens but before," which takes benefits away from Americans.
"Everything she said in that ad is false," said Reid, looking annoyed and accusing her of dodging the question. "It's not true. She knows it. She should stop saying it."
On Social Security, Angle acknowledged she has moderated her position from calling for privatization to giving workers an option to open personal retirement accounts instead. She said people ought to have the same retirement system as Reid himself, which allows him personal choices, unlike Social Security. Reid countered by noting that Angle, too, receives such flexible government health benefits because her husband used to work for the Bureau of Land Management.
The candidates also tussled on extending Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of the year. Angle said small businesses might have to close or cut jobs if the cuts aren't fully extended, but Reid said he personally believes they shouldn't be extended for the rich.
"We can't trust you with our taxes," Angle charged. "Now you're one of the richest men in the U.S. Senate. ... We'd like to know how did you become so wealthy on a government payroll?"
Reid seemed surprised by the personal attack, calling it a "low blow." But he said he made his money as a lawyer before going to Washington and by making good investments.
"I was a very successful lawyer," he said, noting he put five children through school. "I paid for every penny of it."
The two sparred most heavily about health care, including the new law that critics say will cost Americans and local governments more money, including $100 million in Medicaid costs for Nevada.
Angle argued for repealing what she called "Obamacare" and instead allowing insurance companies to offer basic policies with added coverage and to compete across state lines.
"The solutions to the health care insurance cost problems are simple," she said. "They reside in the free market. We need to get the government out of the process, so we can take off those mandated coverages."
Reid shook his head and accused Angle of siding with insurance companies, saying his opponent did not want to require anything of them.
"She's against mammograms, colonoscopies. ... That's really extreme."
Reid talked about how Americans have gotten behind the battle against cancer. "You see the baseball players wearing pink shoes," and the football players wearing pink helmets. But Angle dismissed his sentiments, saying that "pink ribbons are not going to make people have better insurance plans" but that competition would.
The two also butted heads on jobs, a key issue with Nevada's 14.4 percent unemployment rate.
"My job is to create jobs," Reid said, again calling her views "extreme."
At one point, Angle shook her head and used former President Ronald Reagan's famous debate line to rebuke him, saying, "There you go again, Senator Reid." She said she believes it's her job is to "create the policies for the private sector to create the jobs" by lowering taxes and regulations.
Asked by the moderator about a comment she once made saying that extending unemployment benefits have created a "spoiled citizenry," Angle turned the question back on Reid.
"No, I don't think our unemployed are spoiled, and that was totally mischaracterized by my opponent," Angle said.
Reid gave as good as he got, saying, "What she's talking about is extreme."
The two also sparred about the nation's foreclosure crisis, which has hit Nevada particularly hard.
"I've worked hard to help beleaguered Nevada homeowners," Reid said. "We have to do more, of course," he added, saying Wall Street reform legislation changed the rules to help homeowners.
Angle said "the housing bubble" preceded the current recession and Reid refused to deal with it. "This problem has been going on ever since (Reid) has been in leadership," she said.
During his closing statement, Reid said Angle "favors big banks" and is against Wall Street reform.
"I have a different philosophy," Reid said. "I am for the middle-class."
Reid said Angle "mocks" renewable energy jobs such as those he has fought to bring to Nevada.
"I'm a fighter," Reid said in closing. "I will continue to do everything I can for the people of Nevada."
Angle took a folksier approach in her closing statement.
"People often ask me why I smile so much," she said. "It's because I'm an optimist."
"I believe that with God's help, we the people have the solutions to our economic problems," Angle said, arguing for cutting back spending and repealing the health care law.
The candidates then ended as they had begun, by shaking hands.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.