Reid’s remarks threaten to change his game

Is this the gaffe that will haunt Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid?

The Nevada Democrat -- who over the years has called Alan Greenspan a hack, Washington tourists smelly and President George W. Bush a liar -- was pummeled by Republicans on Sunday for impolitic comments about President Obama’s potential for winning the White House.

In their new book “Game Change,” authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann say that in 2008 Reid described candidate Obama as a “ ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one,’ ” whom many voters would embrace.

Although Reid apologized to Obama on Saturday for his “poor choice of words” -- and the president accepted because “I know what’s in his heart” -- his remarks dominated the Sunday talk shows, where Republicans called for the senator’s head.

The contretemps is unlikely to affect the healthcare overhaul, which Reid has shepherded through the Senate without Republican support. The real issue is whether the controversy threatens his reelection by injecting race into an already tough campaign and depressing black turnout in Nevada, where 77% of eligible African Americans voted in 2008.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, who is black, led the charge.

“There is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own,” Steele said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But if it comes from anyone else, it’s racism. It’s either racist or it’s not. And it’s inappropriate, absolutely.”

Steele, along with GOP Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, said Reid’s remarks justified the same outrage once directed at former Sen. Trent Lott. In 2002, the Mississippi Republican stepped down as majority leader after implying that the country might have been better off if Strom Thurmond of South Carolina had been elected president in 1948, when he ran as a segregationist.

“There’s a huge difference” between Reid and Lott, Reid spokesman Jon Summers said. “Sen. Reid was one of the first people to encourage Obama to run for president and worked hard to help him win. . . . His point was that he believed the country was ready to elect an African American president, and he was right.”

Reid plans to remain majority leader and continue his reelection bid, Summers said.

If Reid were to lose his leadership position, it would undercut one of his key campaign themes: that such a small state shouldn’t toss out such a big political player.

But only Republicans were calling for him to step down. Because Republicans have no say in the Democratic caucus, his leadership position seems secure.

The Senate is balancing on a razor-thin edge of partisanship. Democrats hold 58 seats, and two independents caucus with them. If they all stick together, they can provide the bare minimum 60 votes needed to derail a GOP filibuster -- a common tactic in the current session, in which Republicans hold 40 seats.

“I don’t think this is an issue that’s going to affect [Reid’s] leadership at all,” Democratic Party Chairman and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said on “Fox News Sunday.” “In fact, he’s doing some very heavy lifting, wonderful lifting right now, to get this healthcare bill over the goal line, and . . . I think he will continue.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) agreed.

“First of all, all of us are imperfect,” she said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Clearly, this was a mistake. Clearly, the leader misspoke. He has also apologized. . . . The president has accepted the apology, and it would seem to me the matter should be closed.”

A Senate fixture for more than two decades, Reid is known for remarks sometimes more curmudgeonly than careful: Journalist Judy Woodruff, on ABC’s “This Week,” described his reputation in the White House as “the Mormon from Searchlight with an ear of tin and a heart of gold.” Last month, for example, Reid compared opponents of healthcare reform to politicians who had “belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery.”

Nevadans haven’t necessarily found that endearing. Despite his substantial war chest, the backing of state movers and shakers and a state Republican Party in disarray, Reid has trailed second-tier GOP candidates in polls.

“He’s been there three decades, and I believe he’s just lost touch with what’s going on here in Nevada,” Sue Lowden, a former state GOP chairwoman vying for Reid’s seat, said on Fox News.

Reid was first elected to the Senate in 1986. In 2004, he won reelection with 61% of the vote.

But 2010 could be different. Nationwide surveys have portrayed Republicans as more fired up than Democrats for the midterm elections -- more likely to cast ballots, in other words.

And with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) not running for reelection, Reid is the GOP’s largest target.

He has no friends in the conservative Tea Party Express either. The group announced Sunday that it would launch $100,000 in anti-Reid TV ads this week in Nevada.

“He always shares exactly what’s on his mind with little regard to perception or consequences, and it’s one of the reasons he is the most vulnerable incumbent senator in either party facing reelection,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Though racial tensions in Nevada aren’t as raw as in parts of the Deep South, the state was once known as the “Mississippi of the West” for its segregated casinos, which routinely denied lodging to the likes of Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr.

About 7% of Nevadans are black, but few hold positions of political power -- though state Sen. Steven Horsford recently became Nevada’s first black majority leader.

Reid needs at least some of the black voters who turned out in 2008 -- a truth underscored by a luncheon this week to launch the group African Americans for Senator Harry Reid.

“It’s unfortunate he made these remarks, given his history,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who is hosting the Reid luncheon, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “His history is a champion for people of color. But I take him at his word that he’s deeply sorry and offended by his own remarks, and I will support Harry Reid.”

A number of other black leaders -- including House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Nevada’s Horsford, who chaired Obama’s campaign in the state -- have also publicly backed the majority leader.

Reid can’t afford to lose any Democratic support.

Some progressives already are openly frustrated with his centrist tendencies -- Reid voted for the Iraq war and opposes abortion rights -- and with the Senate’s dropping a public insurance option from its healthcare overhaul bill.

Although it’s unlikely these Democrats would back whatever Republican emerges from a crowded primary field, liberals could easily stay home on election day.

“The question is: Will people who’ve stuck with him say, ‘This is the straw that broke the camel’s back’?” said Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

But it’s also uncertain whether the flap over Reid’s remarks will have staying power: The general election is 10 months away, and many Nevadans are preoccupied with pocketbook issues. The state, whose economic growth for years had seemed unstoppable, is coping with a jobless rate of 12.3% and, for the first time since the 1930s, a shrinking population.

Reid has tried to convince voters that his clout can help turn things around. Early campaign ads credit him with saving thousands of jobs at CityCenter, a hotel-casino complex on the Las Vegas Strip that had flirted with bankruptcy.

Should the recession ease somewhat in Nevada, voters might regard Reid’s comments as more akin to Joe Biden’s early -- and soon forgotten -- appraisal of Obama.

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” said Obama’s then-rival for the Democratic presidential nomination -- and the current vice president.