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Angle Ducks Questions in Low-Key Hill Debut

Outsider Senate candidate Sharron Angle introduced herself to a very curious Senate Republican Conference on Tuesday, asking the group of Washington insiders to embrace her as she prepares to battle Majority Leader Harry Reid in perhaps the most anticipated contest of 2010.

Angle, making the rounds of official Washington this week after securing Nevada’s GOP Senate nomination on June 8, attended the weekly caucus lunch. Republican Senators described her remarks as brief and introductory; other sources added that she discussed the negative campaign she expects from her Democratic opponent and the issues-based race she intends to run.

Three rounds of applause were heard coming from the private luncheon, held in the Lyndon Baines Johnson room adjacent to the Senate floor. Most Republicans gave Angle positive reviews following the gathering, in which many of them met her for the first time.

Angle ignored reporters’ questions upon exiting the lunch, although she smiled as a National Republican Senatorial Committee official escorted her to a waiting car.

“Obviously it’s early, but we’re glad to meet Sharron Angle. We told her we would be solidly behind her. We will support her efforts,” NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) told reporters after the lunch, just prior to a scheduled meeting with the former Nevada Assemblywoman at the campaign committee’s headquarters.

[IMGCAP(1)]Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, perhaps observing his unofficial campaign nonaggression pact with Reid, declined to comment when asked if he is confident of Angle’s ability to unseat Reid in November. The Kentucky Republican referred the question to Cornyn.

Controversial Views

Angle was considered an underdog for most of the primary campaign. She trailed badly in public opinion polls for several months before surging in the closing weeks to win with a solid 41 percent of the vote in a crowded field. The conservative favorite had little in the way of a professional campaign operation and won on the strength of grass-roots organizing and support from the Club For Growth and tea party activists.

But since Angle’s victory, the newly minted GOP nominee continues to be dogged by news reports about controversial positions she has expressed. She has said that she might favor privatizing the Veterans Affairs Department and that she supports implementing private investment accounts as a part of Social Security. That might explain why Angle refused to answer several questions fielded by a chasing Capitol Hill press corps Tuesday following the lunch and why — accompanied by NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer — she used a private stairway reserved for Senators and approved staff to make her way from the second floor of the Capitol to the first-floor exit and her waiting car.

The only question Angle answered was when she was asked if she was happy with how she was received by GOP Senators during the lunch. She responded to that query with one word: “Yes.”

Still, Republicans walked away impressed, noting that anyone who could win a competitive primary with a small organization and much less money than her competitors has proved her mettle and must be taken seriously.

“I hadn’t met her. I was impressed by what she had to say, and she did interact with several of our Members,” said Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), who defeated then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004. Among the Senators Angle talked to at length was Sen. Scott Brown. Thune said the two discussed the Massachusetts Republican’s Senate campaign.

Although Reid is politically vulnerable, he is a tough and experienced opponent for Angle. When asked if Angle is ready for “prime time,” Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) answered, “Yes.” Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) said Angle confirmed his previously held high opinion of her, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) called her “capable.”

“She seems like a very accomplished woman,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) added. “If you’re asking, ‘Did she appear to have any flaws?’ I didn’t see any. She was articulate, she was considerate, she was respectful.”

But at least one Republican cautioned that Angle could jeopardize the GOP’s chances of beating Reid, who has been stuck at around 40 percent in most public opinion polls taken over the past year, regardless of his hypothetical opponent. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who commented on Angle only when asked by a reporter, said the views she has expressed on some issues could prove problematic in a general election.

“Some of the candidates who seized on this anti-establishment, tea party [feeling] to win their primaries are going to have a difficult time” in a general election where they must appeal to voters outside their conservative base, the South Carolina Republican warned.

“These candidates who embrace libertarianism or what is being billed as ‘hard-core conservatism,'” Graham said, “are going to have to convince the public at large they can come to Washington and not just be different.”

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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