WASHINGTON -- For the most part, Sen. Harry Reid has avoided direct engagement with Republican challenger Sharron Angle and has left it to his campaign staff to fire off criticism or respond to attacks.
But comments that came to light this week, in which Angle is heard in a radio clip agreeing that there are "domestic enemies" of the United States serving in Congress, hit a nerve with the Nevadan leading the U.S. Senate.
In several venues Wednesday, Reid responded to the charge, calling it "irresponsible and over the top" in a statement and challenging Angle to identify those she believes want to do the country harm.
Reid, the Senate majority leader and one of the leading defenders of the institution, expanded in a meeting with reporters.
"To suggest anyone in the United States Senate is a domestic enemy of the country is really taking it way beyond the pale," he said after speaking at a renewable-energy conference at the J.W. Marriott in Las Vegas.
Reid's campaign posted two videos on YouTube blasting the remark.
Angle's campaign responded that Reid was overreacting and that the comment was not uttered by Angle but by a radio host.
Angle spokesman Jarrod Agen said Reid was no stranger to denigrating senators and others, most recently in the spring when he said a Republican filibuster of a Wall Street reform bill was "anti-American."
"It is the rhetoric which has come directly from Harry Reid's mouth that is a disgrace to this country," Agen said. "Harry Reid's attempt to put words into Sharron's mouth is a desperate ploy and perfect example of why voters are tired of Reid's political antics while the state continues to suffer."
The controversy was the latest dust-up in the increasingly nasty Senate campaign pitting the four-term incumbent Democrat Reid against the Tea Party-backed Republican Angle.
Reid chose to take this issue on personally to defend the Senate as a body, Reid campaign strategist Jon Summers said.
The comments "are an unfair attack on Republicans and Democrats alike who are serving in Congress," Summers said.
The remarks were made by conservative radio host Bill Manders during an Angle appearance on his show last October.
In an audio clip posted to the Internet by Greg Sargent, a liberal blogger for The Washington Post, Manders said: "We have domestic enemies. We have home-born, homegrown enemies in our system, and I for one think we have some of those enemies in the walls of the Senate and Congress."
"Yes, I think you're right, Bill," Angle says.
At the Marriott, Reid said he is confident senators have their hearts in the right place, "even some of those who are Democrats that I don't agree with all the time and Republicans I don't agree with.
"I believe every member of the United States Senate, and I know them very well, are all very patriotic," he said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.