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Reid Says He’s Wiser Than He Was in 1998

Last Electoral Scare Has Him Prepared

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledges he did quite a bit of “underestimating” in the 1998 Senate race, when 428 voters saved him from having to pack his bags and head home to the Silver State.

Foremost, Reid said he miscalculated then-Rep. John Ensign’s (R) ability as a candidate to connect with voters who were drawn to the Nevada Republican’s “charisma.” And Reid concedes that his 1998 political operation was both rusty and inexperienced, forcing him to overhaul it months before Election Day.

“As a result of my underestimating of John Ensign and of course being somewhat complacent, my campaign organization I put together was not really good,” Reid said in a recent interview in his Capitol office.

Now, five years later, Reid said he has learned his lesson from the 1998 campaign and is prepared to defend his seat next year.

“I approach the race with no fear,” Reid said. “I am not nervous talking to you about it.”

The Minority Whip is seeking his fourth term in the Senate representing a state where the electorate keeps growing and changing. The shifting demographics require politicians to work extra hard to introduce themselves to new voters, and to do so successfully requires a potent mix of money and a well-oiled political machine. Reid claims he now has both.

In the first three months of 2003, the Minority Whip raised more than $1 million, which helped boost his campaign bank account to $2.1 million. A campaign source said it is likely Reid will have $3 million in the bank by the end of the next reporting period.

Equally important, Reid points out that he has an experienced political team on the ground that is doing the necessary outreach to build a successful campaign. Back in 1998, the Nevada Democrat acknowledged this was not the case.

“Even though people tried very hard, it was simply not a good campaign,” he said matter-of-factly. “I don’t think it takes a genius to figure that out.”

So far, Reid has hired a veteran campaign manager, Sean Sinclair, who has done tours of duty with former Sen. Bill Bradley’s (D-N.J.) presidential bid and recently worked to elect Ted Kulongoski as governor of Oregon. Sheila Dwyer is heading up Reid’s fundraising shop; Mark Mellman is the Senator’s pollster; and Joe Hansen is handling direct mail.

In addition, the Senator pointed to the Nevada Democratic Party’s hiring of Rebecca Lambe to be the new executive director as a strong asset. Lambe served as former Sen. Jean Carnahan’s (D-Mo.) campaign manger last year. And Mark Sullivan of Voter Activation Network has been hired by the state party to help identify new Democratic and Independent voters.

“We have everybody in place now,” Reid said. “So, I feel very comfortable about the organization I have today.”

So far, Republicans have not yet fielded a candidate against Reid, and political professionals are waiting to see if Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) will leave the safety of his House seat to challenge the incumbent.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said he along with top White House officials have urged Gibbons to run, but they are respecting his decision to weigh all of his options.

“We all understand his timetable,” said Allen, who acknowledged that Gibbons is the GOP’s best bet to unseat Reid next year.

“It would be tough” if Gibbons didn’t run, Allen said. “He is clearly one who has been elected virtually statewide several times and so he has the best name identification. In the event that he doesn’t run, we are still going to be looking for candidates. It is Congressman Gibbons’ decision.”

A spokeswoman for Gibbons said the Nevada Republican continues to consider the race, but has not yet finalized a decision.

“He doesn’t have a set schedule time with regards to his future plans,” said spokeswoman Amy Spanbauer. “He has said previously any decision on this campaign would be made later this summer or early fall.”

Regardless of who is the GOP nominee, the challenger could benefit from being on the same ticket as President Bush, who carried the Silver State in 2000 by a 50 percent to 46 percent margin. And even though Reid claims to be prepared for this race, he has never received more than 51 percent of the vote in his three earlier Senate victories.

Just based on Bush’s 2000 election numbers alone, Allen said even if Gibbons chose not to run the NRSC is not throwing in the towel because Republicans think they can win the seat.

“It is a state that President Bush should do very well in, so we are not conceding it,” Allen said.

As Minority Whip, Reid prides himself on being a behind-the-scenes player, helping to negotiate legislative deals with Republicans to avoid all-out partisan warfare on the Senate floor. Reid said he is fully prepared to juggle the responsibility of being a chief Democratic emissary with running for re-election.

“People in Nevada understand what my responsibilities [are] and if you can watch C-SPAN, you can tell,” Reid said. “So, I am going to do my job here. I was elected to be a United States Senator and take care of the people of Nevada, and I am going to do that and campaign when I have time.”

While Gibbons has not announced his candidacy, Reid is careful not to criticize his potential challenger, whom he acknowledged speaking to about the race.

“I don’t feel appropriate discussing our conversations other than to say that I explained to him if he has to run, he has to run,” he said.

The Nevada Democrat even goes as far to say that he “likes” Gibbons and noted that “there is no question he would be the best [Republican candidate] in at least my view.

“Whether he is going to run or not I don’t know,” Reid said. “I like him. He certainly has done a good job in the House.”

In the 1998 campaign, Reid and Ensign frequently criticized one another, putting a deep chill on their relationship. But since then, the tension has eased and the once-arch enemies have formed an unusual bond that transcends party lines. This is partly due to the Nevada delegation’s nonpartisan approach to protecting state interests such as gambling and mining, and its unsuccessful efforts to block 77,000 tons of nuclear waste from being dumped in their backyard.

When Ensign ran for the seat of retiring Sen. Richard Bryan (D) in 2000, Reid played a passive role in the campaign, a payback to Ensign for the Republican’s decision to concede the 1998 election before the recount ended.

“Here is a person I can truthfully say I didn’t like and I believe he said the same thing about me.” Reid said. “It was a bitter race … and he asked for a recount. Two-thirds through the recount he realized he couldn’t win and he just quit.

“When he called me and conceded the election, I said to myself, ‘That was a pretty classy thing to do.’ I thought to myself, ‘Someday maybe I can repay what I felt was an act of generosity.’ And as fortune would have it, Bryan unexpectedly decided not to run for re-election. Ensign was a shoo-in.”

Reid said he understands Ensign “has certain responsibilities as one of the Republican leaders in the state” to campaign on behalf of the GOP candidate. And Ensign said he will work to help get a Republican elected but noted it’s unlikely he will campaign against Reid.

“You can campaign for somebody without campaigning against somebody,” said Ensign, who recently recommended his colleague’s son, Leif Reid, for a federal judgeship.

“That is the bottom line [and] most likely the role I would take,” he added.

Ensign agreed with Reid and Allen that Gibbons is the GOP’s best hope.

“If he doesn’t run, I don’t know who else we have out there,” Ensign said.

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