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As he embarked on a campaign swing through his home state this week, Sen. Harry Reid didn’t have to look far to see that trouble is coming at him.
A leather-clad biker at a pizza shop refused to shake his hand. A protester waved a sign, “Welcome to Harry Reid’s throw Nevada under the bus tour.” A woman confronted him with two pages of statistics that she said showed Washington is ripping off Nevada.
To top things off, Reid’s customized bus was lashed by a freakish snow storm on a mountain pass, and the next morning he emerged with blood trickling down his hand after squashing it in a door.
During three days of tightly orchestrated campaign events that put the Senate’s most powerful Democrat in front of mostly cheerful crowds, there were reminders of why Reid is among the most vulnerable incumbents in the nation.
He said as much to a crowd Tuesday at the University of Nevada, Reno: “I need your help.”
“I have a lot of people who are after me,” Reid said.
Trailing in polls in his bid for a fifth term, Reid hit the road for the tour of handshaking and speeches that concluded Wednesday in Elko, a town known for its cowboy poetry festival, after long rides through rural Lovelock and Winnemucca. After easily winning re-election in 2004, he’s now playing a different role: incumbent underdog.
Reid is well-financed and faces only token opposition in the June primary, but a string of independent voter surveys suggest he is running behind little-known Republicans who could challenge him in November. With no leading rival to yet emerge, he’s essentially running against himself and the sour economy.
Nevada has been hit hard by double-digit unemployment and record numbers of foreclosures and bankruptcies.
“It’s not me,” Reid said during an interview on his bus, as he munched nuts and dried apricots. “You can go to (Sen.) John McCain in Arizona, you can go to (Sen.) Barbara Boxer in California. It doesn’t matter where you go, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the status quo.”
To his critics, Reid is a politician who long ago lost touch with Libertarian leaning Nevada to join House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in pushing a liberal agenda through Congress.
“He might be doing an OK job for Nevada, but he’s doing a horrible job for us as whole” said Marlene Goodwin, 57, a Republican casino dealer who came out to show Reid her displeasure during the campaign swing. With recent passage of health care overhaul, the middle class is “going to be sucked dry.”
On the campaign trail, Reid disputes any notion that he’s part of the Washington elite, reminding supporters that he spent his childhood in the isolated desert town of Searchlight, where the mining industry collapsed years ago and prosperity is scarcer than rainfall.
Yet even as he depicts himself as a plain-talking man from the frontier, Reid makes use of all the advantages of a sophisticated modern campaign. He’s surrounded by high-priced media consultants and aides, who position camera shots for upcoming TV ads or Web videos. When advertising once meant newspapers, he talks now about the importance of reaching voters on the Internet.
And he hewed to a script of talking points at appearances with the precision of an actor. A security team from Washington shadows his every move.
His overriding message for 2010 is made plain on his bus, which is adorned with the slogan “Harry Reid … Driving Nevada Forward.” He repeated that in various ways on stops in small towns around Reno.
Reid told audiences he understands that the recession has made life miserable for many in Nevada, but noted that the stock market is picking up momentum and he predicts jobs will follow. He isn’t shy about rattling off achievements that include bringing home a steady stream of federal dollars.
Outside a Minden coffee shop where local Democrats helped round up an adoring crowd, Rita Weisshaar, 60, a retired utility worker, credited Reid with blocking a large increase in medical premiums faced by union retirees.
“He’s done a lot for Nevada and he’s in a position to do a lot more,” said Weisshaar, a Democrat. “I don’t think anyone measures up to his stature.”
Reid speaks with a calm, practiced assurance, not surprising for someone who first ran for public office four decades ago. No one calls Reid, 70, a charismatic speaker, but he made a point of working in one-liners to win laughs. Dressed in jeans and a blue sweater, he poked fun at Sarah Palin, “You betcha!” And when asked in a Carson City coffee shop if immigration policy should encourage women of childbearing age to become U.S. citizens to increase the population, he said, “I’m not opposed to sex.”
He also worked in swipes at familiar working-class villains, the insurance industry and Wall Street bankers.
The campaign released only spotty information on the location of most of his events, and one tea party leader, Eric Odom of the Patriot Caucus, accused Reid of trying to “avoid meeting Nevadans who might ask tough questions.”
Reid said “everyone knows where we are going to be.”
And some critics did find him.
Outside a pizza restaurant in Fernley, supporters competed with a sprinkle of protesters eager to see the senator retired. One woman held up a sign, “Harry you’re fired.”
Retiree Bob Diffenderfer, 73, of Fernley, said he’s struggling to make ends meet on Social Security payments that haven’t kept pace with inflation. He blamed Reid for the state’s financial mess and refused to shake Reid’s hand when the senator extended his.
“He’s trying to make Nevada a dust bowl,” Diffenderfer said.
When he snubbed Reid, the senator said, “That’s OK. That’s what democracy is all about.”
The tea party movement has made Reid a top target, and the loosely organized group lured at least 9,000 people last month to his hometown in a protest against his re-election. In the interview, Reid dismissed the demonstration as a publicity stunt attended mostly by out-of-staters who despise government in all its forms.
Reid often notes Nevada has changed in the six years since his last election, and there are tens of thousands of new voters who don’t know him. But as he competes in what could be his last campaign, he says those years haven’t changed him.
“I’m just who I’ve always been,” he said.