On an election eve mission to save Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, first lady Michelle Obama dashed into Las Vegas on Monday to ask Nevadans to send the senator back to Washington to give the president "the chance to finish what we started" two years ago when he won the White House.
"We have come much too far to turn back now," the first lady told a rally of 1,000 supporters who filled the Canyon Springs High School gym with loud cheers for her and chants for Reid.
The Democratic senator's GOP challenger, Sharron Angle, delivered her own message before Election Day voters head to the polls today . She argued the incumbent has failed Nevada by not doing enough to turn around the economy in the hardest hit state.
"Nevada just cannot afford Harry Reid," Angle said, speaking on a conservative radio talk show. "We need to take back our economy by repealing the extremist policies that have crushed our economy."
The candidates' ending pitches came after a hard fought and nasty $50 million, five-month general election campaign that pits the most powerful man in the Senate against a Tea Party backed conservative in a race that could determine whether the GOP retakes control of the upper chamber.
The outcome also will affect President Barack Obama's ability to extend the Democrats' agenda. It includes the divisive new health care law, the $787 billion stimulus bill and bank and auto industry bailouts that have contributed to a record $13 trillion deficit.
"There is so much at stake right now," said Michelle Obama on her second visit here this year to support Reid after three campaign stops in Las Vegas by the president. "Our campaign was never just about putting one man in the White House. It was about building a movement for change."
Like Reid, Rep. Dina Titus, a freshman challenged by Republican Joe Heck, is fighting to keep her seat. In other Nevada races, Reid's son Rory Reid is the underdog in a contest with Republican Brian Sandoval for the governor's seat, while Republicans battle to increase their power in the Democrat-controlled state Legislature.
The first lady's visit is a sign of how worried the Democrats are that Reid could lose to Angle, the former Reno assemblywoman edging him out in several polls ahead of the mid-term election. Reid, as the engine of Obama's programs, is suffering under the weight of economy-driven discontent.
The first lady acknowledged that people who believed her husband's message of hope and change have been disappointed, but she urged patience with the Democrats.
"I know that a lot of folks are hurting," she said. "I know that for a lot of folks change has not been fast enough. But believe me it has not come fast enough for Barack or Harry either.
"But the truth is, it's going to take us a lot longer to get us out of this hole," she added, echoing the same message the president has delivered across the country. "This is the hard part of change."
Before today, nearly 380,000 Nevadans had already cast ballots during the two-week early voting period, or more than half of those expected to vote as officials predict a turnout of 60 to 65 percent.
Thanks to an advantage of 60,000 registered voters, the Democrats turned out at least 7,500 more voters than Republicans in early and absentee voting. But the GOP had a higher turnout rate by about 4 percentage points, and most analysts predict that GOP enthusiasm will carry over to today.
To win, Reid must continue to deliver a large number of Democrats to the polls and hold his own among swing independents, who were leaning Angle's way by double digits, according to surveys. Angle's camp believes it can win if she holds her GOP base and finishes strong with nonpartisans.
The main reason the first lady came to Las Vegas was to make a personal appeal to first-time voters and minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics, who in 2008 helped Barack Obama win Nevada with 55.1 percent of the vote compared with 42.7 percent for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican.
Most of those packed into the North Las Vegas high school gym were minorities, and Reid has spent most of his on-the-ground campaign urging them to vote, especially Hispanics, a fast-growing population that now accounts for 12 percent of the Nevada electorate.
"Bringing in somebody like Michelle Obama helps him with his base, but she also connects better with independents," said Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Northern Nevada. "She also softens Harry Reid and maybe brings some people who were wavering back to him. They're trying to soften a lot of his negatives."
After nearly three decades in Washington, Reid is one of the most unpopular politicians in Nevada history with more than half of voters having an unfavorable opinion about him. The president also suffers from high negative ratings while the first lady is popular among most Americans, especially women who have followed her initiative to battle childhood obesity.
Reid introduced the first lady as "the closer," suggesting she could be his ticket to eking out a victory. The former high school boxer said he's not ready to leave the political ring and retire.
"You know, I really have fought my whole life," said Reid, 70, reading from a speech delivered with energy. "I've fought for Nevada my whole life. But you know, I'm not finished fighting."
Angle, 61, spent the day in Washoe County, eating lunch at a senior citizens center and talking to voters by phone in a final push for support. She held a telephone town hall with McCain, who could help her hold moderate Republicans, who might be wary of her staunch conservative views. He's also popular among independents because he, like Angle, has fought the GOP establishment.
Angle also did several interviews with conservative TV and radio talk show hosts, using the friendly media venues that she prefers to get out her message, largely unfiltered by tough questions.
Lokken said Angle, like Reid, was reaching out to her base supporters to make sure they get to the polls. As an example, she plans to cast her ballot today -- much like many traditional GOP voters -- whereas Reid voted early as an example to other Democrats during his big pre-Election Day push.
It's also of note that Angle has spent much of her time in the past week or so shoring up her support in rural Nevada and Washoe County, her home where Reid is putting up a big challenge.
"She basically had to come back home after spending a lot of time in Southern Nevada," Lokken said. "But I think last-minute campaigning keeps the candidate busy but doesn't make a lot of difference."
Angle, during her appearance on Fox News commentator Sean Hannity's national radio talk show, blamed Reid for Nevada's "dismal economy," her main campaign message. She promised that, if elected, she would vote to repeal national health care reform and "bring back good old capitalism."
She also told Hannity that Nevada's record high 14.4 percent unemployment rate is really 22.3 percent when you count people who are underemployed or no longer looking for jobs.
"We have him to thank for it," she said, adding that Reid does not understand it is business that drives America. "Harry Reid has done his very best to demonize me. That is all he has. He cannot run on his record. His record is that of totally devastating our economy."
Angle, a fiscal and social conservative, has argued for lower taxes and less regulation on business as a way to spur job growth. Reid has used stimulus spending partly to support government jobs but has also backed tax breaks to help small business and clean energy projects, too.
Reid said Monday that if Angle were elected, Nevadans would wake up with a senator who "says it's not her job to create jobs," who would let insurance companies control health care and who "wants to drive us right back into the ditch," a reference to GOP policies he argues led to the recession.
Both Reid and Angle were set to continue campaigning today even as voters go to the polls. Tonight, they each will attend GOP and Democrat gatherings in Las Vegas to watch the returns.
Up north, Angle planned to hit polling places and shake hands with people going to vote.
Down south, Reid planned to talk to volunteer canvassers in the morning at his Summerlin campaign headquarters and then serve lunch to volunteers at his office on Valley View Boulevard.
Titus and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who is expected to coast to re-election, both appeared at the rally with Reid and the first lady. Holding up their cell phones, they urged the Democratic activists to call friends, family and coworkers and get them to the polls today.
"Now, I really need your help," Titus told the gathering. "Harry Reid really needs your help. And all the Democrats up and down the ticket really need your help."
Las Vegas Review-Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel contributed to this story. Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.