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A ‘tea party’ test in Nevada

After Sharron Angle scored a come-from-behind victory in June’s U.S. Senate primary, political observers wondered if she’d cool her fiery rhetoric in hopes of ousting Harry Reid, the unpopular but well-funded Nevada Democrat who has shepherded President Obama’s agenda.

Angle had called for scrapping Social Security, dismissed entitlement programs as “idolatry,” and urged elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency -- the type of positions that served her well as a state lawmaker in a heavily Republican district but were viewed as potentially too divisive for a statewide race.

She has since tried to watch her tongue, sort of. But her campaign has mostly tested the broader appeal of “tea party” values -- and Christian conservatism -- in an economically ailing swing state.

The contest has become one of the most closely watched in the nation, pitting Reid -- the Senate majority leader and arguably the GOP’s top symbolic target in November -- against a former state lawmaker who championed fiscal prudence long before the tea party movement existed.

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If any state is amenable to tossing out a powerful incumbent, it’s likely Nevada, which soared on a tourism and construction boom that abruptly crashed. Given the 14.2% jobless rate -- the nation’s highest -- and Reid’s abysmal polling, political observers have joked that even an Elvis impersonator could unseat him.

“The only thing he’s delivered for Nevada is hardship,” crowed an Angle ad released last week.

To many primary voters, Angle appeared a perfect antidote to Reid, -- a symbol of federal power in a state that deeply resents it. A petite, soft-spoken former teacher, Angle wooed voters with relentless door-knocking and grandmotherly warmth, and the backing of deep-pocketed conservative groups.

“You know, I feel a little lonely today,” she said while accepting the endorsement of the Tea Party Express in April, “I usually bring Smith and Wesson along, and I have to tell you I’m going to give Washington, D.C., a lesson in the Constitution, especially the 2nd Amendment.”

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Angle enjoyed a post-primary bounce; now the race is considered a tossup. With five times more cash on hand, Reid has hammered Angle as “just too extreme” in a series of television commercials that, in effect, have turned her words against her.

“She gave Reid the opportunity to define her as something of a nut bar,” said Ted G. Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Angle, who declined to be interviewed, brought on a new communications director last week amid a flurry of news reports about her views on social issues: She has said gays should be barred from adopting children, for example, and that Democrats, by expanding entitlement programs, were trying to “make government our God.”

“She’s not a typical politician and she’s not going to speak in canned statements,” said spokesman Jarrod Agen. “The election is not going to come down to sound bites here and there. The election is going to come back to the economy and jobs.”

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Her campaign has argued that it’s Reid and Obama who are out of touch, with their focus on healthcare and financial regulatory reform at a time of stubbornly high unemployment.

“I would say to you that my positions are very much ... representative of mainstream America,” Angle said at the recent state Republican convention.

But afterward, when reporters clamored for further explanation of a statement that “2nd Amendment remedies” might be a solution should control of Congress not change, one of Angle’s new handlers quickly cut her off.

Angle, 61, has never before needed to soften her rhetoric or court independent voters.

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In the northern Nevada city of Winnemucca, where she lived for years, she gathered signatures to protest Roe vs. Wade, harangued store owners into covering nudie magazines, and opened a small Christian school that, according to former teacher Glenda Haley, taught creationism as fact.

Angle moved to Tonopah, served on the county school board in the early ‘90s and worked to get the conservative Independent American Party a spot on the ballot. A petition she signed said the party believed in doing away with foreign aid, the IRS and “the Marxist graduated income tax,” and called the U.S. government tyrannical. She eventually switched to the Republican Party.

“Sharron wanted to get elected,” said Christopher Hansen, a former state IAP chairman. “She sold out her principles for power.”

Angle represented a Reno-area district in the state Legislature for four terms. She sponsored a failed bill that would have required doctors to tell women seeking abortions that the procedure could increase their risk of breast cancer, and floated the idea of Nevada prisons using massage to help drug-addicted female inmates -- a program Scientologists have advocated.

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She opposed requiring psychological evaluations of children who tortured animals or committed crimes with firearms, saying it amounted to gun control, and helped temporarily stall the largest tax hike in state history.

Friends say she was principled; critics say bullheaded. Regardless, she was the legislative opposite of Reid, the consummate dealmaker: She voted no enough in the 42-member Assembly that “41 to Angle” became a punch line in the capital, Carson City.

“Sharron is the poster girl for Christ,” said friend Sally Shaw, “and if you support Jesus Christ’s values, you’re labeled as extreme.”

Since the primary, Angle’s strategy has resembled that of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s in the 2008 presidential campaign: Raise money and rally the base. But when speaking mainly to Republican clubs and conservative talk show hosts, Angle has repeatedly stumbled.

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To be sure, Reid has logged his share of gaffes over the years: calling tourists smelly, the Iraq war “lost,” President Bush a “loser,” and Obama a “light-skinned” politician who could turn his “Negro dialect” off and on. This week, the GOP pounced when Reid openly wondered “how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican.”

By contrast, Angle’s lightning-rod moments have centered on policy. She has been forced to distance herself from statements that the BP oil spill compensation program was a “slush fund” and that the unemployed’s benefits have “spoiled” them.

On Social Security, arguably the issue that has dinged her most, she now says only younger workers should “personalize” their retirements. The shift in language has been intentional, she told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in discussing why she’d retired her battle cry of wanting to “take out” Reid.

“I have to be very careful about how I phrase things. I can no longer say words like ‘take out,’” she said. “Those have now gone out of my vocabulary because he has misinterpreted what I meant by those words.”

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The recent Crossroads of the West Gun Show should have been an effortless campaign stop for Angle, whose newsletter shows her aiming a .44 magnum called the “Dirty Harry Hand Cannon.” Yet even among friends at the Reno convention center, Angle found herself playing defense against Reid’s scathing ads, which had clearly rattled some attendees.

One voter asked her: “Are you a Scientologist?” Another demanded she hit back “every time you see Harry going kissy-kissy with Obama and kissy-kissy with Pelosi.” A third huffed, “It kind of made me mad: You supposedly wanted to do away with Social Security. Why?”

“I don’t,” she said, telling the man her comment had been taken “completely out of context. I want to save Social Security.” In her defense, she reminded him, “Who put that commercial out?”

Another gun show attendee, Fel Arellano, a 58-year-old sales manager and member of the IAP, planned to vote for Angle, but worried about her appeal to moderates. Polls show almost half of voters view Angle unfavorably -- nearly as many as dislike Reid.

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“To take that hard line and not show flexibility, that’s going to hurt her,” he said. “They’re going to listen to her and go, ‘Oh, that’s so extreme.’ ”

Conversely, should Angle appear to shy away from her tea party beliefs, she could disillusion conservatives who might choose a third-party candidate or even the uniquely Nevada option “none of these candidates.” In Reid’s 428-vote Senate victory in 1998, “none” notched more than 8,100 ballots.

“This guy has had more narrow escapes than Houdini,” said UNLV’s Jelen, “and he may be setting himself up for one more.”

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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