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Harry Reid vs. The Republicans: Round One

When Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) walked into the room to speak to a group of hungry Democrats assembled to elect former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he looked like a championship prizefighter. [IMGCAP(1)]

Reid — who is, in fact, a former boxer — had spent the past week defending himself against attacks by both the Republican National Committee and its conservative allies. Instead of ducking and weaving, Reid went on the attack as if he had been thrown a sucker punch.

By attempting to compare the new Minority Leader to his predecessor, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the Republican Party has breathed life into a Congressional leadership that now thirsts for a little blood of its own. In their cowardly rush to personally “Daschle-ize” Reid as an obstructionist, they not only insulted Reid, but they also rallied the Senate Democratic Caucus to stand behind its leader.

Instead of sitting off to the sidelines in their nice Senate offices like a bunch of dutiful public servants, Senators in the restless minority rushed to the floor and the airwaves to collectively defend Reid’s good name and to reiterate their strong opposition to the President Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security.

So, thanks to Ken Mehlman and those little researchers at the RNC, the Democratic Congressional leadership is now up and raring to go.

Using a left-right combination of jabs, Reid personally led the charge to set the record straight and to throw the Republicans’ trash back in their faces. The man even went to the White House and gave the president an earful. At first, I thought Reid would come off as a hapless little crybaby, but in the end, Reid’s strident defense made him appear eager for battle.

“We can’t wait for 2008 to begin this work,” Reid told the enthusiastic DNC gathering. “We can’t even wait for 2006. We need to begin right now. Because this is a struggle for America’s future. And the stakes are high.”

Few knew that this man, whose quiet demeanor and humble background are more like Harry Truman than Lyndon Johnson, had it in him to rally Democrats to their feet.

But those who know him back home in Nevada — such as Yvonne Atkinson Gates, a Clark County commissioner and chairwoman of the DNC’s Black Caucus — could have told the GOP what to expect from Harry Reid.

“Never underestimate him,” Yvonne said to us after his speech. “Don’t count out Harry Reid.” She should know. “When you least expect it, Reid can hit you from behind and knock you out,” she said. Who knew? Clearly, the Republicans of Nevada, she informed me.

Yvonne described Reid as a politician you can trust when he tells you where he stands. I am sure that is why Republicans are obsessively trying to paint a different portrait of the man they must deal with now that Daschle has been retired. But they will soon learn that Reid understands how to get up, strike back and go another round. I heard it in his closing statement to the DNC gathering.

Before leaving the room filled with raucous activists, Reid looked around with a fierce glare in both eyes as if he was sizing up those in his corner. Suddenly, his tone shifted from a high fever pitch to a soft mellow sound. The leader from the tiny Nevada mining town of Searchlight started to sway a little because the words that followed came from some place deep inside. He wanted us to hear them well.

“Already the dirty politics and attack-dog tactics have started from the Republican Party,” he reminded us. “They have brought one piece of legislation to the Senate floor, but they have mailed a million copies of a 13-page booklet on how to attack me. They want to do the same thing to me that they were able to do to our friend Tom Daschle,” Reid continued.

Then Reid’s left leg shifted against the podium. His right foot was firmly in forward position as those broad and steely shoulders stood erect. Reid’s words started to flow from his mouth as if he had rehearsed the lines a million times. With greater emphasis and weight, Reid finished his speech by telling those standing in his corner, “We know their game — and they’re not going to get away with it again.” The crowd felt the blow landed and jumped up and gave the fighter a standing ovation.

Democrats, for the most part, are now united behind Dean and have begun to show new signs of political potency. Many of the delegates this weekend welcomed the new tone being set by Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But it’s Reid, the boxer, whom Republicans should now be worried about, because he’s one red state Democrat in no mood to dance. He’s ready for a fight.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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