Sunday, Nov. 11, 2007 | 8 a.m.
WASHINGTON - Always the chess master, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is strategizing his next political move.
Think back to a year ago, when all eyes were on the midterm congressional elections and the possibility that Democrats might take over both houses of Congress. As those campaigns were under way, Reid was working to secure a 2008 presidential caucus for Nevada. He knew the caucus had the potential to generate excitement that could boost voter turnout and Democratic fortunes in 2008.
And now, as the political momentum is focused on the 2008 presidential election, Reid is looking ahead to 2010.
That is the year Reid will face reelection at home, always something of a struggle for him.
Although strategists believe the wind will be at Democrats' backs heading into the 2008 elections, it might not blow so strongly for Reid and the party in 2010.
Democrats are already feeling the pinch of voter discontent after just 11 months in power. Congressional approval ratings that were as high as 44 percent when Democrats took over the House and Senate at the start of the year have plummeted to barely 20 percent. Reid's own poll numbers in Nevada are a mixed bag.
Democrats have been unable to deliver a consistent, inspiring message about the direction in which they are taking the country now that they are running Congress for the first time since 1994.
The best sound bites Democrats have come up with - "New Direction for America," "Change Course in Iraq" - are hardly the stuff that captures the country the way legendary message-masters such as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton did.
By 2010, if Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress, the election could easily become a referendum on what Democrats have done - or failed to do.
Reid, ever the pessimist, knows the time to act is now.
Success will depend on Reid's and his party's ability to get the upper hand with their message, said David Lublin, a political scientist at American University in Washington, D.C.
"This is where the Democrats consistently flub it - they always have an 800-point plan," Lublin said. "Americans want to hear about your direction and where you're going to take things," and Democrats "need to have the message simple, comprehensible."
All the more so for Reid in Nevada, a politically split state. Democrats have never had an easy time winning statewide, and Reid's own near-misses on the campaign trail - including a chilling 428-vote victory in 1998 - have left him an always vulnerable figure.
But 2010 could be even more troubling than normal for Reid, who wears a target on his back as Senate majority leader. Republicans have made no secret of their desire to knock him from his perch as they did then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004.
Fellow Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who heads the Republican committee that's trying to oust Senate Democrats, acknowledged in a Hill newspaper last week that leadership positions are in the bull's-eye as "both sides are looking for the bigger prize." Already the state Republican Party churns out regular attacks on Reid.
Gary Myrick, now Reid's chief of staff, remembers sitting in a Las Vegas hotel room on election night in 2004 as Daschle lost, and pulling his boss aside.
Before working for Reid, Myrick had worked for Daschle, and for former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell before that, and he knew what was coming next.
"Because of my experience with Sens. Mitchell and Daschle and what being the party leader means, I told him, 'You are going to have to focus on Nevada every single day,' " Myrick recalled. "It trumps everything else."
Earlier this year, Reid made sure his Nevada point person, Rebecca Lambe, was hired by the state party to shore up its infrastructure for the next two election cycles.
In Washington, Myrick ensures that every piece of legislation that passes the Senate floor is scrutinized to either help Nevada or do the state no harm. He insists on time in Reid's schedule every day for the home state.
And perhaps most noticed, Reid is bringing back his longtime former chief of staff, Susan McCue, on a part-time basis to help Senate Democrats nationally create a message about who they are and what they stand for - laying a stronger foundation as the party moves forward.
The intent, McCue said last week, will be to get Senate Democrats' message out with "focus, consistency, repetition." She speaks in the no-frills manner that comes from her earlier years as Reid's press secretary.
Reid has never been the best spokesman for himself or his party. After voters elected Democrats to Congress in last fall's sweep, they might have been surprised to hear the soft-spoken Reid emerge as the voice of the party.
Reid is known for telling it like it is, but sometimes mangling the message in the process. In Nevada, his own approval ranges from 32 percent to 56 percent, depending on the poll.
That's where McCue comes in.
McCue is well-known in Nevada and Washington political circles as the yin to Reid's yang. She is his most trusted adviser, who can channel his interests and desires like no one else in his circle.
When she announced last fall that she would leave her boss of 15 years to run Bono's anti-poverty campaign, ONE, Reid teared up at her goodbye party. One Republican staffer said she's so good at what she does that if she "wants to switch parties, I'll take her."
He won't get the chance. McCue has decided to set up her own consulting shop. She'll continue to work with ONE but is now devoting 10 hours a week to Reid.
McCue's greatest contribution could be her ability to translate Democratic policy for the masses.
"They have not been so good at forming very large themes, beyond 'We're succeeding,' " one Democratic strategist close to Reid's operations said. "It's very difficult when you're in the middle of the daily grind up there to get your head above the trees and see the forest. That will be her task."
Consider the recent debate over expanding health care for children from working poor families, known as the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
McCue would have Senate Democrats dump use of the SCHIP acronym and instead talk about "healthy kids" or some other easily digestible buzzword. One source called her the "Frank Luntz for the Democrats," referring to the Republican mastermind behind the "Contract With America," which guided the Republican Revolution of 1994. Were she around during the SCHIP debate, she would have packaged the bill in a theme about Democrats' broader commitment to health care and middle-class issues.
With McCue's touch, watch for big-picture themes heading into 2008 about how Reid and Democrats stand up for middle-class Americans, national security and energy independence.
UCLA political science professor Barbara Sinclair said congressional leaders have historically faced a tough time getting their message heard - and only in the second half of the 20th century were legislative leaders expected to have the kind of media message that could compete with the roar of the White House.
Reid's attention to 2010 comes just in time.
With pitched partisanship in Washington, Democrats might end their first session in power with fewer legislative successes to show voters than they would like.
Instead,their job during the next year will be to show what the two parties offer - and what Reid, through his leadership office, brings Nevadans.
"What we want to do is highlight our priorities and let Nevadans and voters decide," McCue said. "What's important is Nevadans will see what we're fighting for. That will bring it in stark relief ... whose side we're on."
Stay tuned for a sound bite that says that.