Preview of Nevada Senate debate

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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In a race where many voters feel like their vote is a choice for the better of two evils, the key to winning the Nevada Senate debate tonight may be simply to come out looking better than the other guy.

With the debate just hours away, the Real Clear Politics polling average has Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle in an exact tie.

Adding to the significance of tonight’s debate is the fact that this is the first time the candidates have shared a stage, and the only time they will do so before the November election. With early voting starting Saturday, Angle has declined further debates, saying she wants an “informed electorate,” the Associated Press reports.

Angle has for the most part avoided the national media since winning the Republican nomination. David Damore, associate professor of political science at University of Nevada — Las Vegas points out that tonight will be “the first time that most voters have ever seen her live.” As a result, Damore said,  it could have a significant impact on the election, giving voters their one and only chance to develop “that visceral gut feeling on ‘is this someone I can trust?’”

Because of her limited media exposure, Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus says Angle is “going to have to be willing to answer everything.…This is her opportunity to clear the air bout any misconceptions about her.”

Eric Herzik, chair of the political science department at University of Nevada — Reno, calls this debate “unlike any other” in that “neither one of these candidates is very good in this type of setting. Reid has more experience, but public speaking and particularly off the cuff answers just aren’t his strength. But on the other side, you have Sharron Angle from whom you never know what’s going to come out of her mouth.”

Indeed, both candidates have put their foot in their mouth very publicly on numerous occasions. In an interview with CNN this morning, Angle was questioned about two such instances: a statement that there are places in the U.S. governed by Sharia law, and the fact that she switched her position on privatizing social security and Medicare.

Herzik notes that this puts “pressure on the moderator in this debate in terms of following up and making sure candidates answer the questions.”

But both candidates will likely try to stick to their talking points.

“The main thing,” Damore says, “is avoiding saying something stupid, which both of them have the propensity to do.”

Reid, Herzik says, “needs to highlight what he has done for Nevada and why it is good for Nevada. That message has not gotten out effectively.”
Angle has a tougher job, according to Damore. He says she must “demonstrate that she can be  ‘senatorial,’ that she has a sort of command of the issues,” and moreover that “she can be coherent in her arguments, and not just sort of fall back into her sound bytes.”

According to Damore, Reid simply has to show “that Sharon Angle’s a risky bet for Nevada.”

He compares this race to the Bush/Kerry presidential race of 2004, saying that while neither candidate may actually win over voters, the trick to winning is to convince them: “You don’t like me, but is the alternative something you really want to bet your future on?”

But playing on voters’ fear of the unknown may not work in this race, which, due to Reid’s position as majority leader, is seen as a very clear referendum on the Obama administration.

“This is about Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi; this is something the entire country understands,” Jacobus says. “If [Angle] can keep the focus on that and make sure that over and over again she’s reminding voters that Harry Reid is basically the tool of Barack Obama and his agenda that has angered so many Americans in the past two years…she will win the debate.”

Neither candidate has been able to poll over 50 percent of the vote, and in a race where there are very few undecided voters left, the election may be decided not by those who pick the better of both evils, but by those who refuse to do so. As Karl Rove pointed out on Fox today, “In Nevada you can not only vote for third parties, you can vote for none of the above,” and according to Damore, the number of these votes in Nevada elections regularly exceeds the vote difference between the two major candidates.

Those protest votes will ultimately benefit Reid, Damore says, pointing to Republican voters who have been alienated by some of Angle’s more incendiary statements and are therefore unwilling to vote for her.