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Unlikely Reid-Newton ticket helped make USO Lounge a reality at McCarran

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Mona Shield Payne/Special to the Sun

Longtime friends U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and USO supporter Wayne Newton shake hands while speaking during the groundbreaking ceremony of the new USO lounge in Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday, August 18, 2010.

USO Lounge Construction at McCarran

A previous restroom under construction is shown during the tour of the new USO lounge during the groundbreaking ceremony in Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday, August 18, 2010. Launch slideshow »
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U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (both D-Nev.) tour the new USO lounge together during the groundbreaking ceremony Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday, August 18, 2010.

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U.S. Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) celebrates the new construction of the USO lounge while speaking during the groundbreaking ceremony in Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday, August 18, 2010.

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Randall H. Walker, director of the Department of Aviation, thanks those involved in the USO lounge project while speaking during the groundbreaking ceremony in Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday, August 18, 2010.

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Nellis Air Force Base Installation Command Chief Sgt. Al Herring, center, visits with retired Marine Sgt. Jason Brooks and Sgt. Tyler Corbaley, right, before the groundbreaking ceremony of the new USO lounge in Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday, August 18, 2010.

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U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (both D-Nev.) watch on as Sgt. Jason Schwartz crosses a gold sledge hammer prior to ceremoniously hitting a wall inside the new USO lounge during the groundbreaking ceremony in Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday, August 18, 2010.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, Sen. Harry Reid made a few clear distinctions between himself and the famous entertainer standing a few feet to his right.

"We don't seem to have a lot in common," the Senate majority leader said Wednesday morning during a media event making the start of construction at the USO Lounge at McCarran International Airport. "He's an entertainer, I'm a politician now. He's a Republican, I'm a Democrat.

The person Reid was referring to in his strange-bedfellow description was USO Celebrity Circle Chairman Wayne Newton, with whom Reid partnered to ensure there was sufficient political and financial support for the 2,000-square-food R&R haven that was formerly a VIP lounge for US Airways passengers. The space is located in Terminal 1, on McCarran's mezzanine level.

Reid wields political clout, certainly, but used Newton's ample influential star power (especially in Las Vegas) to contact elected officials and such resort moguls as Michael Gaughan and Sheldon Adelson for support.

Adelson is donating the furniture for the lounge, and as Reid noted, "We do not agree politically, but it would be rude of me not to acknowledge the support Sheldon Adelson has given to this project, the USO, and supporting our troops; this is not a political issue."

Even so, many political pundits and show-business observers across the country have professed surprised that Newton is a loyal Reid supporter. They shouldn't be, even as Newton's relationships with powerful Republicans date to his friendship with Ronald Reagan in the 1970s. He's supported every Republican presidential candidate since then, including George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Sen. John McCain in 2008. Neil Cavuto of Fox News, for one, clearly was stunned when Newton informed him of his support of Reid.

But, as Newton says, it would have been shocking if he hadn't supported Reid in his tight re-election campaign against Republican Sharron Angle.

"There was never a question that I would support him," said Newton, who has been a friend of Reid's for more than 30 years and also was very close to Reid's mentor, late Nevada Gov. Mike O'Callaghan. "In fact, I have supported him in every campaign that he has been in. Let me explain it this way — and this is not a political gathering — but I understand the question: Partisan politics is one thing, but what's best for our state and our country is something else. So, I think that has to take priority way over the partisanship."

Newton said the relatively small and often relatively powerless state of Nevada is fortunate to have someone with Reid's authority in the Senate.

"I understand power, and what I don't understand is people who are thinking about putting a junior senator into office when you have the most powerful man in the Senate already representing your state," Newton said. "You have to consider what our state would be without him."

The USO Lounge is a $1.5 million project, funded thus far primarily through private donations. Those on hand included Reps. Dina Titus and Shelley Berkley, McCarran International Director Randy Walker, USO executive Doug Bradford, Col. Kevin Fox of Nellis Air Force Base, and representative of Rep. Dean Heller and Sen. John Ensign.

Most of those who spoke talked of observing servicemen and -women plopped on the floor or leaning against walls at McCarran during cross-country layovers.

"I was returning from Bosnia once, in the mid-'90s," Fox said, "and there was nowhere you could go just to sit and relax, clean up, and this was after a very long trip when you're a little rattled anyway. A lot of people don't realize all the work the USO does — they know them mostly from the entertainment they do — but they do a lot more than even that. This is really, really important."

The USO Lounge should be open by Veterans Day. An estimated 55,000 members of all branches of the U.S. military cycle through the airport each year. Fox called it, "A VIP center for our most important VIPs."

More from the event:

• In an interview with assembled media after his prepared statement, Reid was asked about his statement opposing the Muslim mosque proposed for a location two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood. "I've said what I'm going to about that," Reid said. "I've said that we have freedom of religion, I believe in it wholeheartedly. This is a time to bring people together, not for polarization, and I think everyone would be better off if it were built somewhere else." When asked about the rift the issue had cause in his party, Reid responded with a slight smile, "Which party?" Then asked if there were any other questions before saying, "Thanks, everybody," and walking off. ... Berkley joked that Newton helped fund her education, through her earning a law degree, because her father earned healthy tips for years when Newton played the Sands. Newton joked, "I've supported a lot of attorneys." ... The actual event was not a groundbreaking but a wall-breaking, as officials and military personnel smashed at a wall with gold-colored sledgehammers, marking the beginning of construction. ... Newton hinted at changes at Casa de Shenandoah. "We're doing an awful lot at Shenandoah, which I'm not at liberty to discuss yet. But I will in the not-too-distant future, and it is exciting." There is so much to see at Shenandoah that the public never gets to see. ... Newton said he'd been "in talks" with MGM Grand for dates at the Hollywood Theatre this year, but don't expect him there anytime soon. He has been working on three movies this year and just voiced the upcoming "Fallout: New Vegas" video game. ... The USO Lounge is to be WiFi-available, but cell service was spotty Wednesday. McCarran, we're happy to note, offers free WiFi, so one can write about McCarran media events from the Budweiser Racing Track Lounge, and I thank you.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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