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Top Democratic senator debates to save his job

Sen. Harry Reid, the most powerful Democrat in the Senate, battled to save his political life in a highly symbolic debate with an ultraconservative tea party-backed Republican.

world Updated: Oct 15, 2010 12:24 IST

Sen. Harry Reid, the most powerful Democrat in the Senate, battled to save his political life in a highly symbolic debate with an ultraconservative tea party-backed Republican. Going into the face-off, the race was too close to call. Reid is in a political fix that exemplifies the troubles facing Democrats nationwide with less than three weeks left before congressional elections. The outcome is widely predicted to hand Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives. Reid's predicament is amplified in that he now is Senate majority leader. That makes him a special target for Republicans who are working hard and spending vastly to help tea partier Sharron Angle upend a politician who holds a position of such national prominence. Angle attacked Reid as a career politician who has voted to raise taxes 300 times. The four-term veteran called his party-backed rival extreme and accused her of distorting his record. "I have never voted for tax breaks for people who are here illegally," he said, rebutting one of the allegations Angle has made during the campaign.

A Reid loss would only deepen Democratic embarrassment in what is likely to be a poor showing for the party across the board. A Republican majority in either or both houses of Congress is likely to snuff out U.S. President Barack Obama's hopes of completing an ambitious legislative agenda in the final two years of his term. All 435 seats in the House are on the line. In the Senate, 37 of 100 seats are at stake. Also, 37 state governorships are on ballots nationwide.

Reid and his opponent squared off in the televised debate as a new poll released on Thursday showed Angle with a 47 percent to 45 percent edge over Reid. The results were well within the 4 percent sampling error margin.

Four percent of respondents said they were undecided and another 4 percent said they want neither candidate or someone else. Going into the debate, both candidates had shown a tendency to make gaffes, and public speaking isn't a strong skill for either candidate. The Thursday night confrontation was their only debate and could be just as important for Angle, who has shunned contact with the media and delivered her message through advertising rather than in person.

Reid, a fourth-term incumbent, has praised Obama's absence of a "Negro dialect" and deemed New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand the Senate's "hottest member."

Angle, a former state legislator making her first statewide run, has hinted that voters might take to "Second Amendment remedies" if Reid is re-elected and mused that some American cities are grappling with a "militant terrorist situation." The Second Amendment guarantees Americans' right to gun ownership. The debate provides an introductory meeting for many voters, whose contact with the candidates has mostly been limited to a flood of bruising ads since the June Republican primary. Reid has portrayed Angle as a crazy extremist who wants to protect foreign workers and sex offenders.

Angle has painted Reid as a shadowy politician whose back-room deals have benefited illegal immigrants and child molesters. Also on Thursday, a townhall meeting broadcast live gave Obama a broad pre-election forum to explain his record of the last 20 months and engage voters and try to rally them behind Reid and other Democrats.

Obama was pressed about race relations, unemployment and taxes, illegal drugs and immigration, racism, the federal retirement program, discrimination and bullying, Cuba, Sudan, education and the environment.

A Howard University faculty member who said she voted for Obama in 2008 wondered about his "alleged commitment to equality for all Americans, gay and straight." She asked why Obama didn't just wipe away the controversial "don't ask-don't tell" military policy himself instead of waiting for Congress.

Obama responded that he had not just mentioned his stand on the issue, as the questioner had put it, but declared it, including in a State of the Union address. "That's point No. 1," he insisted. More than 70 journalists were expected to attend the debate Thursday night, including reporters from Japan, England, France, Germany and the Netherlands.