Poll sends a wake-up call to struggling Angle

Sharron Angle's first TV ad of the general election ends with this tag line: "Help is on the way."

At the moment, it's Angle who needs help, say worried GOP insiders in Nevada and Washington. They wonder whether the Republican has the ability to recover quickly after an early drubbing at the hands of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid's rapid-fire campaign operation since the June 8 primary.

Six weeks into the general election campaign, Angle's small circle of advisers still is struggling to ramp up into a professional shop to compete with Reid's sharp operatives attacking the conservative's every comment and view in a stream of missives and TV and radio ads.

Angle still has no campaign war room and no communications director to put out fires, strike back at the onslaught and go on the attack. And the Tea Party favorite and her trusted crew have resisted moves by national Republicans to direct strategy, say insiders who are starting to lose patience.

"There is still enough time to turn this around, but they need to get their act together quickly, quite candidly," said one GOP operative, noting the election isn't until November. "There's a growing recognition there needs to be improvement on the communications side and on the organization side."

The latest poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal shows Angle with 37 percent of likely voters' support to Reid's 44 percent and "is a wake-up call" for her to step it up, said the operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private GOP concerns.

Previous surveys had the two in a statistical dead heat. The July 12-14 Mason-Dixon poll is the first with Reid up over Angle outside the 4 percentage point margin of error.

While Angle has been caught flat-footed, the Reid campaign has flayed her for everything from wanting to shut down the Education Department to saying it isn't her job as a U.S. senator to create jobs -- even as she criticizes Reid for Nevada's record 14 percent unemployment rate, the worst in the nation.

Reid, in campaign ads and speeches, has played up his role in calling banks to pressure them to continue funding the $8.5 billion CityCenter project that opened last year on the Strip, resulting in 10,000 new permanent jobs at the hotel-casino and associated stores.

Angle said she wouldn't have made those calls. She compared the effort to a government "bailout," although no federal money was used.

Angle said members of Congress should spur new jobs by reducing taxes and excess regulation of business and not by expanding government.

"Sharron Angle wouldn't have saved CityCenter," a narrator says in Reid's latest TV ad that began airing last week. It ends with Reid's main message about his foe: "Sharron Angle is just too extreme."

In one of the first signs that Angle's campaign may be coming to life, she launched her first general election TV ad a week ago as President Barack Obama visited Las Vegas for Reid.

The 30-second spot plays gloomy music and shows images of people in un­employment lines as well as "closed" signs over stores. The ad blames Reid for the deteriorating economy with the jobless rate jumping from 4.4 percent in Nevada to 14 percent since he became the Democratic leader of the Senate five years ago. The ad notes home foreclosures and bankruptcies have soared, too.

Jerry Stacy, spokesman for Angle's campaign, said the Republican would be airing a second TV ad soon, also criticizing Reid for not doing enough to fix the dismal economy.

A member of Angle's inner circle, Stacy said the campaign hadn't been able to fight back until now because it has been focused on raising money and trying to expand its team.

Angle's husband, Ted, is a close adviser, as is campaign manager Terry Campbell, who has helped run the former Reno assemblywoman's past successful and failed bids for office.

"We went into this race with very few people," Stacy said of Angle's do-it-yourself primary campaign where she often was on the road alone, driving around the vast state in her 1989 GMC pickup. "But we have the money now, so Harry Reid's the one that's in serious trouble."

The next few weeks will be a key indicator of whether Angle can use the summer to halt Reid's momentum and her own slide before voters start paying close attention ahead of Nov. 2 -- particularly nonpartisans who now are split between the two, according to the Mason-Dixon poll.

"Angle now has to come back with a response that allows her, in a sense, to redefine herself because she has let herself be defined by Harry Reid," said Eric Herzik, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. "And she has to start the attacks on Harry Reid."

Angle will need deep pockets to fight back, since Reid has vowed to raise up to a record $25 million for his campaign. So far, he has raised $19.2 million and now has $9 million cash on hand.

Angle, after racking up debt during her primary campaign, is suddenly proving successful on the fundraising front. She brought in as much money as Reid during the latest quarter ending June 30 -- $2.3 million compared with $2.4 million -- and now has about $1.8 million cash on hand.

She did it by directly appealing for money on conservative TV and radio, asking for online donations on her remade campaign website and making the rounds in Washington to tap lawmakers to give her the maximum $5,000 from their leadership Political Action Committees.

To run her website, Angle hired The Prosper Group Corporation, which worked on Sen. Scott Brown's outsider GOP campaign in Massachusetts for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat.

In another positive move, Angle's TV spots are being produced by John Brabender, a prominent GOP consultant who has handled media for other conservatives such as Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Beyond that, Angle's efforts to expand her team and divide duties are going slowly. An attempt to hire a communications director fell through, although the campaign still plans to hire someone soon, Stacy said. He also turned scheduling duties over to another staffer.

Meanwhile, opportunities are getting lost as Stacy, Angle and her manager can't keep up with requests, including for interviews, and with offers of help from GOP operatives in and out of state.

The voice mail boxes of key members of the team often are full. E-mails seeking information routinely go unanswered. Some key staffers are just now getting equipment such as iPhones and BlackBerrys, which are considered vital rapid-response tools for modern-day campaigns.

Reid is getting help from Obama, the first lady and former President Bill Clinton. But Angle's campaign doesn't appear to be reaching out to some big-name Republicans willing to come to Nevada to boost her election hopes, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Romney's PAC donated a maximum $5,000 to Angle's campaign after she won the primary and he endorsed her. But she has yet to ask him to campaign for her, according to one insider. A popular figure in Nevada, Romney won the 2008 GOP presidential caucus here and is expected to run in 2012.

During the primary season, Romney came to Nevada and endorsed Joe Heck, the GOP candidate who is trying to unseat Rep. Dina Titus, a freshman Democrat.

Thune beat Reid's predecessor in 2004, ousting former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Thune is running un­opposed in 2010, so he decided to campaign and raise money for other Republicans.

"We plan to support Angle," Thune campaign manager Justin Brasell said.

But the senator doesn't have current plans to come to Nevada, Brasell said. "We haven't been asked yet, but he would be happy to consider it."

Sarah Palin, a popular GOP figure and vice presidential running mate in 2008, has donated $2,500 to Angle. When Palin came to Las Vegas a couple weeks ago for a bowling convention, she didn't meet with Angle, although Stacy said the campaign is trying to arrange an appearance.

The former Alaska governor campaigned against Reid in March, firing up a crowd of up to 10,000 people during a Tea Party-arranged "Showdown in Searchlight," the senator's hometown.

While the Angle campaign struggles to get its sea legs, the Reid campaign is working to push his poll numbers up bit by bit, a chore given his unpopularity in Nevada.

Nearly half of Nevadans don't have a favorable opinion of Reid, whose name is universally recognized in the state after three decades in politics, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll.

His 44 percent support among Nevada voters in the poll is the best Reid has done in a series of polls since last year, yet it's not high enough to assure victory.

Reid campaign spokesman Jon Summers said his re-election strategy is to keep pounding away at the message that the senator is working for Nevada, and to keep pounding away at Angle.

"We will out-work, out-organize, and out-message," Summers said in an e-mail. "We will continue making sure Nevadans know that Senator Reid wakes up every day working on solutions to improve our economy, create jobs and keep people in their homes. And we will continue making sure Nevadans know about Angle's extreme agenda to kill Social Security, abolish the Department of Education, and eliminate the Department of Energy at a time we're dealing with the disaster in the Gulf. "

Despite the charge by Reid's campaign, Angle has said she wants to save Social Security, not kill it, by restoring $2.3 trillion to its trust fund that the government has used to pay for programs. She also wants to let young workers opt out of the system and open private retirement accounts.

Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker said if the Senate campaign continues along its current track, with Angle becoming less popular under withering attack and Reid remaining unpopular in an anti-incumbent year, voters may go to the polls holding their noses.

"Whoever is disliked the most will lose," Coker said.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.