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July 29, 2014

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What’s behind Harry Reid’s success

Denver

I first encountered Harry Reid 22 years ago this month as a neophyte political scribe covering the then-congressman’s bid for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul Laxalt.

Even to my cub reporter’s untrained eye, Reid was an awkward candidate, painful to watch on the stump and seemingly drained of charisma. Laxalt had persuaded Jim Santini, a former Democratic congressman, to switch parties on the last day of eligibility, creating an issue that would suffuse the campaign. The Reid organization set the tone by planting questions with a reporter at Santini’s announcement about a hoary Federal Election Commission complaint, and the newly minted Republican, who had a sweating problem, soon had beads popping up on his forehead.

That image, of Santini wiping his brow, combined with a series of memorably brutal “Which Jim Santini do you believe?” ads, made Reid a U.S. senator, despite visits from President Reagan, and changed the course of Nevada history.

I bring this up as the Democratic National Convention concludes because it occurred to me that Reid, who was a similarly bland candidate 10 years later but eked out a win against a telegenic congressman named John Ensign, now exudes what the party-switching Santini never could in that 1986 race: He is completely comfortable in his own skin.

During the convention, Reid has moved effortlessly through the many roles he plays — the consummate D.C. insider who had hundreds of people, including some big names, kiss his ring at a fundraiser for his PAC; the attack dog who eviscerated John McCain for whoever would listen; and the most powerful force in Nevada politics of the past quarter-century who has revived the state Democratic Party as his own career was once resuscitated and basked in the adulation here from the local delegates.

In some ways, Reid is the same man I covered more than two decades ago, a complex politician with a mixed and sometimes contradictory set of traits — unassuming, wry, Machiavellian, meddling, partisan, bipartisan, careless, careful, focused, foggy.

Most of all, Reid is as unflappable as ever, even after he causes a sensation with his carefree utterances. Whenever he gives an interview, you can imagine his entourage with BlackBerrys at the ready, primed to send messages to each other that start with, “Can you believe he said that?”

But his aides also know this about Reid: He will not change. He never had much of a finely honed self-editing mechanism and it has atrophied over time, so that he continues to tell what he perceives as the truth even when it is quite impolitic or indecorous to do so. Hence, the president is a “liar” and a “loser,” and he “can’t stand” McCain, who also “does not have the temperament to be president.”

Reid also can be quite the chameleon, as he displayed here. He can talk about Barack Obama as “changing the country” and Bill Clinton as “having a conversation with the American people.” But he can also savage McCain, agreeing with an interlocutor’s hypothetical that the senator believes the Republican is “dangerous” for the country.

Reid doesn’t seem to care about Republicans’ frothing at his every word or that the local media didn’t give his speech rave reviews. He has never put much faith in polls, so I doubt he frets about his upside-down numbers.

He cares about what the scoreboard says, about winning, a quality perhaps strengthened by devastating losses in the 1970s for Senate and mayor (!) that almost ended his career.

Reid is simply basking this week in what he has accomplished for his party. Nevada is a battleground state because of Harry Reid. Imagine if Santini had won in 1986 or, more so, if Ensign had ascended in 1998 and erased Reid. Would there be that registration advantage caused by the Reid-procured early caucus, the demo organization, or would the GOP have dominated the state for decades?

Republicans are salivating at the chance to take out Reid in two years as they did his predecessor, Tom Daschle. If you think the focus is on Nevada this cycle, wait until 2010 if Reid, as is likely, is on the ballot. (Even if he weren’t going to run, he wouldn’t let anyone know until he had orchestrated a succession plan, no matter how much money he raises in the next two years.)

No matter what his poll numbers are, no matter how much the GOP comes after him, Reid will do whatever is necessary to win. He won’t do it with charisma and he won’t do it with great oratory. But no matter what the odds, he might survive.

Just ask Jim Santini.

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