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Why the Reid-Angle debate matters so much

Debates, like newspaper endorsements, tend to be a slightly overrated commodity in politics.

Typically, debates are mundane affairs watched closely by small groups of partisans on each side -- factors that virtually ensure they are not (with apologies to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann) game changers in a race.

Need evidence? Remember how badly -- and that word doesn't even really accurately describe it -- Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) did at a debate a few months ago? And yet she is still a solid frontrunner to win reelection in 19 days time.

(Important note: The "debates don't matter much" principle does not hold for presidential general election debates, which have massive audience that includes lots of undecided voters.)

Every once in a while, however, a political debate comes along that genuinely matters to the outcome of a race. Tonight's debate between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and former Nevada state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle (R) is one of those moments.


At the simplest level, it's the only debate between the two Nevada candidates and, therefore, the only chance for voters to see either of them outside of the ubiquitous television ads that both sides are funding. (Angle, for her part, has severely limited her availability to the state and national media.)

The debate will be aired live statewide in Nevada so it's a safe bet that anyone who has even a casual interest in the race will watch as least some part of it. (C-SPAN -- Fix's favorite network -- will be airing the debate live at 9 p.m. eastern time and we will be live-blogging the proceedings in this space starting around 8:45 p.m.)

But, there's also much more to understanding why this debate matters so much.

For the better part of the last 18 months, it's been relatively clear that Nevada voters are ready to fire Reid.

A majority of voters view him unfavorably in the latest Las Vegas Review Journal poll conducted by Mason-Dixon -- numbers that have been largely unchanged since the start of the election cycle.

Those numbers led most political prognosticators -- the Fix included -- to assume that Reid was political dead meat on Nov. 2 since almost anyone Republicans nominated would almost certainly be a credible-enough alternative to Reid to win.

Enter Angle, the tea party favorite who bested two better-known and better-funded candidates in the June 8 GOP primary to become the unlikeliest Senate nominee in the country -- until, of course, Christine O'Donnell came along.

Angle struggled badly to adjust to the national spotlight that immediately shined on her; a series of impolitic statements -- past and present -- were successfully used by Reid and other allied Democratic groups to paint Angle as an out-of-step-extremist.

That caricature stuck and has left Angle unable to clear the (very low) bar of credibility that most voters in the state have to fire Reid and hire her.

Tonight's debate is Angle's best -- and maybe last -- chance to prove to voters that all of the bad things they have heard about her are inaccurate and the result of simple partisan sniping.

Put another way: This is Angle's "I am not a witch" moment.

She will stand on stage opposite Reid, the most powerful Democratic Senator in Washington, for an hour. The trick for Angle is to look like she belongs, to show that she can handle non-scripted questions and demonstrate the sorts of thinking-on-your-feet- skills most people expect in their senator.

"If she can hold her own, look senatorial next to the majority leader, that could assuage doubts the Reid campaign has raised," said Jon Ralston, the state's leading political reporter. "But if she looks unsure, says something bizarre, that could drive people to Reid or none of the above."

Ralston's point is critically important. Reid's vote ceiling is almost certainly 46 or 47 percent -- almost every poll conducted in the race has shown him topping out in that vicinity no matter where Angle stands in the head to head matchup.

So, Reid won't likely win over many more voters tonight. After all, he is universally known in the state and the race has been fully engaged for months and months. If a Nevada voter is still not with Reid, why would they decide to be now?

But, due to fact that "none of the above" is an option on the Nevada ballot, Angle could almost certainly lose votes if she can't convince people that she is up to the job. Angle needs to coalesce the anti-Reid vote behind her candidacy; every vote for "none of the above" almost certainly comes out of her vote total.

It's an absolutely fascinating dynamic and make the debate absolute must-see TV for political junkies. (You can ALWAYS tivo "The Office"!)

By Chris Cillizza  | October 14, 2010; 1:57 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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