LAS VEGAS – Last Thursday, Sharron Angle soundly defeated Harry Reid in the lone debate of their high-octane campaign. During my final 12 hours in Nevada, I sat down with a senior GOP operative and a high-level Angle campaign aide to discuss the Silver State’ s Senate slugfest. Both conversations frequently referenced last Thursday’ s exchange, which I predicted could be decisive. Unsurprisingly, both sources agreed with mainstream media assessments declaring Angle the winner, and each provided some interesting details about how a grandmother from Reno outfoxed the most powerful man in the United States Senate.
Running point on Angle’ s debate prep was Mari Maseng, a former Reagan speechwriter, and wife of conservative columnist George Will. “ Sharron is a bit of a perfectionist, so she refused to prepare half way. The process was very detail-oriented,” the Angle staffer told me. The campaign prepared a list of questions and controversies that they thought might surface, and made sure the candidate was prepared with persuasive responses to each one. This came in handy, I was told, when Angle was challenged on her past statements about a Senator’ s role in job creation. Whereas her initial remarks were mangled, Angle’ s reply in the debate was smooth and convincing.
Both sources were cagey about revealing who played Harry Reid during mock debates leading up to the main event, but I eventually confirmed faux-Harry’ s identity: Sen. John Ensign. Casting Ensign in the role of Harry Reid was a political masterstroke by Team Angle. Ensign, Nevada’ s junior Senator, ran against Reid in 1998 -- losing by just a few hundred votes. He then won the following Senate election in 2000 and has served alongside Reid for ten years. “ Ensign’ s only flaw was that he was too smooth and effective during the trial debates,” one source said. “ Sharron was ready for a much more polished debating partner, and then she ended up with actual Harry Reid. His stumbles and confusion really shocked us.”
As the moment of truth drew near, Team Angle experienced significant “ pre-debate jitters,” but those quickly subsided when Reid botched his opening statement and Angle nailed hers. Top Republicans, huddled in a nearby hotel suite to watch the exchange, were elated. “ Someone asked out loud, ‘ what is he doing?’ ” referring to Reid’ s wandering soliloquy. “ It seemed like [Angle] was feeding off his mistakes.”
The only truly memorable moment of the hour-long debate was Angle’ s pointed suggestion that Reid “ man up,” and face the realities of America’ s entitlement crisis. The “ man up” comment, which has inspired political t-shirts and other flare, was a prepared line that Angle delivered at an opportune moment. “ I think Sharron really hit her stride after ‘ man up’ because it worked and [Reid] was already floundering,” the operative said.
Angle’ s aide said the campaign was “ thrilled” by the debate’ s outcome. “ We could not have been more pleased with our performance. Nevadans had an opportunity to meet the real Sharron Angle. She’ s a plain-spoken woman, who’ s not a career politician,” the aide said. “ She’ s an average Nevadan who’ s frustrated with the direction Harry Reid has taken our state.” Asked if the campaign was at all surprised by Angle’ s strong performance, this staffer said the bigger eye-opener was Reid’ s poor showing. “ As the Senate Majority Leader, he debates on the Senate floor every day. That’ s what he does. So we were more than a little surprised by how flat he fell. He was all over the place.”
As the race enters its final, frantic stretch, both Republicans expressed confidence about the direction the race is trending. “ If we just stick to talking about the issues, we win,” one said. “ That’ s why Reid is trying to make this all about Sharron, and other ancillary issues.” The senior Republican operative, who has been in politics for two decades, predicted an Angle win, “ absent some drastic change in dynamics.” He said polling, early voting, and the overall political atmosphere favor Angle, and adding, “ We’ ve built a reasonable turnout operation to rival [Nevada Democrats’ ], which is a machine. Of course, in a close race like this, you wake up in the middle of the night worrying if you’ ve done everything you can do to win. You never know until it’ s over, but I think we’ re in pretty good shape.”