Why Harry Reid Is No Tom Daschle

It's no secret that Harry Reid is in trouble in Nevada. For months, the Senate Majority Leader's approval ratings back home have been in the dumps. A poll conducted last week for the Las Vegas Review Journal found Reid with a paltry 38 percent approval rating, down more than 15 points since he won re-election back in 2004. But Reid's falling popularity with Nevada voters isn't the only thing that has Dems worried. The last two Mason Dixon polls in the state have found Reid losing against two potential GOP challengers: businessman Danny Tarkanian, who beat Reid 49 percent to 43 percent in a projected match-up; and Nevada GOP chairwoman Sue Lowden, who edged out Reid 49 percent to 39 percent. The upside for Reid: The GOP has struggled for months to find a candidate to run against the Senate Majority Leader, and of these two, only Lowden has officially declared, something she did only two weeks ago. The downside for Reid: He's still losing even as Republicans have struggled to get their act together, so what does that say about his vulnerability?

For months now, Republicans in Washington have giddily eyed Reid's numbers back in Nevada as a sign that they could take him down in the same way they brought down his old boss, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who lost his own re-election bid in 2004. Back then, the GOP and its allies put millions of dollars into issue ads and get out of the vote efforts aimed at Daschle's defeat. No doubt, there are similarities. Like Daschle, Reid is one of the most high-profile Democrats in the country. But there are major differences--including the fact that Daschle, for most of his campaign, led in the polls. On the upside for Reid, Republicans haven't found their John Thune in Nevada. When Thune ran against Daschle, he was already a well-known Republican member of Congress, someone with a proven fund-raising ability and wide voter base back home. But on the downside for Reid, he's definitely no Daschle, someone who had extremely high approval ratings back home with both Democrats and Republicans. "That was what was so shocking about Daschle's loss," veteran-election watcher Charlie Cook tells Newsweek. "He was beloved back home… Reid is not."

Is there a way for Reid to turn it around? On Thursday, a full 383 days before Election Day, the Senate Majority Leader unveiled his first ads of the 2010 campaign, including one that's a straightforward bio ad about his humble beginnings in Searchlight, Nev., how he hitchhiked to school and put himself through college working as a janitor, to his time in the political spotlight, taking on the mob in Las Vegas. A second ad talks about Reid's efforts to bring jobs to Nevada. It's a strategy Reid's camp has been planning for months—to remind people who Reid is and what he's done for them. And over the next year, he'll do it again and again—thanks in part to an already significant fund-raising advantage he has over his potential GOP challengers. According to fund-raising reports filed this week, Reid has raised more than $7 million this year for his re-election campaign and has almost $8 million in the bank—a pretty good head-start on what could be a more than $20 million Senate race. He's also trying to take a higher profile on health care reform, after leaving most of the details to Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, and playing up his ties to President Obama, who won the state with 55 percent of the vote in 2008.

But will that be enough to give Reid the boost he needs? At 13.2 percent, Nevada has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, and critics have accused Reid of being out of touch—a charge the Senate Majority Leader has strongly denied. "The people in Nevada know me very well," Reid told reporters a few weeks ago. "They know what I've done over the years." Recovery, he acknowledged, has been slow, but once it hits Nevada, "I think there's going to be a general good feeling." But privately, his colleagues aren't so hopeful. Senate Democrats are "scared to death" about Reid's prospects, a top party operative, who declined to be named to speak more frankly, tells Newsweek. "If the election were held today, he'd lose. Period." Luckily for Reid, Election Day is still a year away—an eternity when it comes to politics.