Harry Reid and Sharron Angle have a lackluster debate.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 15 2010 1:22 AM

Low Roller

Harry Reid and Sharron Angle have a lackluster debate.

Harry Reid and Sharron Angle.
Harry Reid and Sharron Angle

After watching the Nevada Senate debate, the country should hope that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Whatever talents Harry Reid and Sharron Angle may have, they were not on display in the hourlong event. The problem was not nastiness. By modern standards, and the vitriol of this campaign, the candidates were pretty tame. The problem was that both candidates at times seemed only lightly connected to the questions and content of the evening. They ignored questions, which is frustrating enough, but then they filled the space with talking points delivered in staccato fashion so that at times it seemed like entire sentences were missing.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Sharron Angle had the marginally better night in the only debate of this high-profile race. Reid has portrayed her as a nut case. She didn't appear nutty. Sure, she ducked questions on Social Security and job creation, contradicted herself and conveyed no particular magnetism, but Reid ducked, waffled and wandered, too. If Angle won, though, the prize for the night might be tiny. The most recent poll in the state shows that the race is dead even. Four percent of the voters are undecided. If Nevada's undecided voters are like those in other states, the debate isn't going to sway them—particularly a debate where the "winner" didn't really win in a dramatic fashion. Those voters are going to form their impressions in some other way.

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Voters were certainly given a clear choice. Reid talked about all that he and the president had done to help the state with the highest unemployment rate in the country. Angle criticized that federal intervention. A senator's task was not to create jobs by funding projects, she said, but to create a private sector environment so that business can thrive.

But those differences in approach have been clear for months. Was there anything that will live on after the debate that might help the undecided voter pick a candidate? Reid certainly didn't provide anything. He talked about the money and jobs he's brought home for the state. He's been doing that for months, in person and on the airwaves. It hasn't changed the dynamic. He was every inch a senator. He dispensed jargon—CBO, exchanges—and the names of legislation like "wounded warrior" and the Hyde amendment just as he would on the Senate floor. The latter was in response to a yes or no question about abortion, which meant his response hit for the cycle— evasive, long-winded and jargon-filled. His answer to a question about the Bush tax cuts was that he'd consult experts. He even lapsed into calling Angle "my friend," as if she were already in the adjacent cloakroom.

The candidates didn't have talking points. They had talking dashes—snippets of phrases and buzzwords. Reid used the word "extreme" often when talking about Angle. Her safe word was "Obamacare." If Reid's words dribbled out, Angle's came like karate chops. When she wasn't offering urgent platitudes about the Constitution and limited government, she was on the attack. She portrayed Reid as a serial tax-raiser and career politician. She also got personal, hitting him for living in the Ritz-Carlton and suggesting he had enriched himself as a senator. She also challenged his masculinity. "Man up, Harry Reid. You need to understand that we have a problem with Social Security," she said. The Big Line was so thoroughly inauthentic, she should apologize to her fellow Republican, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who so effectively used that line in his race last year.

If there was one little flake of gold for Reid in the evening, it may have been in Angle's response to questions about whether government should mandate that insurance companies cover services like mammograms or colonoscopies. Angle said there should be no mandates. "What we have here is a choice between the free markets and Americanism," she said. Reid kept trying to paint her as extreme on issues like Social Security or dismantling government, but she ducked or muddled the issue. In this instance, though, she was actually embracing an extreme view. Insurance companies are not popular. President Obama's health care legislation may not be popular, either, but individual government intervention to ensure coverage is. For examples, in a recent Bloomberg poll, 75 percent of respondents said they supported a ban on insurance companies denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

You can imagine how a politician like Bill Clinton might have responded to this in the moment, naming specific cases where people were denied lifesaving preventative tests. Reid gave no such answer. He talked about football and baseball players wearing pink for breast cancer awareness. He then talked about how in colonoscopies they "snip off the things they find."

Nevertheless, in the coming days Reid and his surrogates will no doubt run hard on this issue. You can bet it'll be in an ad. It will provide a potentially fresh way for him to talk about Angle's extremism. The problem for Reid is that he's been playing the extremism note for months. Anyone already predisposed to thinking Angle's views go too far has probably already drawn that conclusion.

For the last several weeks, the contest between Angle and Reid has been stagnant. The polls have been tied. The candidates have been playing to the same scripts. Despite the tons of ads on television, visits from big names like Bill Clinton, and outrage over gaffes, it has felt arid and unmoving. In the casinos in Nevada when this happens, they pump in oxygen. This debate did not do that for this race.

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