As a junior reporter at The Atlantic, I get the assignments Jim Fallows can't stomach. So since he took a beer over the Harry Reid/Sharron Angle debate last night, I find myself recapping the showdown this morning.
"Showdown" might be too strong of a word--neither candidate in the Nevada Senate race stood out, and the slow-moving debate lacked energy on both sides. That said, Angle managed to keep Reid on the defensive and not talk herself into too many corners. Seeing as Reid is a four-term senator and the highest ranking member of Democratic Senate leadership, the fact that he didn't show Angle the door means that she essentially came out on top.
Angle was well prepared, spouting figures her campaign has cited before and sticking closely to her talking points. As usual, she spoke slowly, a slightly loony smile plastered on her face, and often stumbled over words. Yet she continually brought the debate back to to her campaign's attacks on Reid, leaving the senator seeming tired and exasperated. Reid continually resorted to technical language and never managed to regain an offensive stance.
Addressing Social Security, which has been a centerpiece of this race, Reid gave a measured defense of the program, denying that there were shortfalls or that it needed to be revised.
"Don't frighten people about Social Security," Reid said, referring to the Angle campaign's claims that taxpayer funds have been removed from the Social Security "lock box" in order to fund unrelated legislation. "The deal that was made by President Reagan and Tip O'Neill is holding strong. The money is there and it's taking care of our folks and will for the next 35 years."
"Man up, Harry Reid," Angle replied. "You need to understand that we have a problem with Social Security. That problem was created by government taking money out of the Social Security trust fund."
The two candidates tussled over the Congressional Budget Office's estimates of the program's solvency, with Angle lobbing vague accusations that Reid voted to replace Social Security funds with "IOUs." In a departure from her calls during the primary for privatizing Social Security, she advocated for "personalizing" the system. When the moderator asked her to distinguish between the two approaches, she said that a "personalized" system could offer both public and private options.
Reid attempted to paint Angle as a fringe candidate, a tactic his campaign has been hammering for a while. "These ideas of my opponent are really extreme," Reid said of her Social Security stance. "Her facts are absolutely wrong."
When the moderator asked Reid why he waited until an election year to bring up border security in the Senate, Reid avoided the timing part of the question and instead touted the border security bill the Democrats passed in August. He stressed the need for comprehensive immigration reform, but Angle saw the issue in much simpler terms.
"What we have here is an illegal alien problem, and the solution is simple: secure the borders, enforce the laws. I think every state should have a sheriff like Joe Arpaio," she said, referring to the controversial Arizona sheriff who's been enforcing the state's new immigration law.
Asked about the Bush tax cuts, Angle said that she wants to extend them permanently before quickly veering into an ambiguously related attack on Reid's personal finances. "You came from Searchlight to the Senate with very little," Angle said. "Now you're one of the richest men in the U.S. Senate. On behalf of Nevada taxpayers, I'd like to know, we'd like to know, how did you become so wealthy on a government payroll?"
Reid, as annoyed as his softspoken, monotone demeanor allows, called the question a "low blow" and explained, "I think most everyone knows, I was a very successful lawyer, I did a very good job in investing. I've been on a fixed income since I went to Washington, I lived off what I made in the private sector, I put my five kids through 100 semesters of school, and I paid for every penny of it. So her suggestion that I made money being a senator is simply false."
Nevada journalist Jon Ralston declared that "Sharron Angle won The Big Debate," mostly by appearing "relatively credible" and because Reid was not on his game. The debate may not have much of an effect on the race, though, since most Nevadans have already made up their minds. October polls show that only 0 to 4 percent of likely voters are undecided.
Chris Good floated the possibility yesterday that a ballot initiative to eliminate direct elections of state Supreme Court justices could increase turnout of Angle supporters, whose general ideology seems to suggest they would oppose the initiative. In such a closely a tied race, any minor effect on turnout could end up making more of a difference than a lackluster debate.