Michelle Obama's 'rock star' status fails to draw crowds

The crowd went wild when Michelle Obama swept into a high-school gymnasium in Las Vegas yesterday morning, with little Harry Reid trailing in her wake and a local Mariachi band, in full dress uniform, entertaining the crowd. But behind the flag waving and anthem-singing, and the sunny optimism of a typical American election rally, there was a palpable sense of unease.

Two years ago, at the height of Obamania, the First Lady was a sort of rock-star; with a following wind, she could fill an outdoor stadium. Today, her stock has fallen. A few hundred people did turn out to hear her speech, but there were swathes of seats left empty at the back, and plenty of standing room around the stage. Ticker tape was conspicuous by its absence.

Mrs Obama’s message, on the eve of a mid-term election that will define the last two years of her husband’s first term as President meanwhile wasn’t so much Yes We Can as Hopefully We Might.

“I know a lot of folks are still hurting. A lot of folks have found that change hasn’t come fast enough. And believe me, it hasn’t come fast enough for Barack,” she told the crowd. “Many of us came to the Presidency expecting to see all the change happen at once. But the truth is that it’s going to take us a lot longer to dig America out of this hole… And we need people like Harry Reid. So vote for him; we don’t have much time.”

Her almost apologetic tone laid bare up a pertinent fact: nowhere better sums up the Democratic Party’s plight, in this awkward election season, than here in the shadow of the Las Vegas strip, where Reid, a 26-year Washington veteran who as majority leader in the US Senate is one of America’s most powerful political figures outside of the White House, finds himself drinking in the last chance saloon.

The Senator currently sits between two and four points in the Nevada polls behind Sharron Angle, a former schoolteacher with no national political experience who comes from the extreme right wing of the Republican movement. In a pattern being repeated across America, his centrist brand is being threatened by an unconventional candidate whose quirky – and some say bonkers – right-wingery has been roundly endorsed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement.

“People are turning against Harry Reid, and it's wrong,” said Paula Larkin, a Democratic activist at yesterday’s rally. “He’s a good man, and the day Nevada votes him out is the day this state no longer has a voice in the Senate. He’s 70 years old, so won’t run for office again, so this is what you might call his last stand.”

Reid’s problems boil down to one fact: his fundamentals are awful. In an election season dominated by anti-incumbent sentiment, he is an incumbent. With disillusionment with career politicians at an all-time high, he is the ultimate careerist. Despite the economic stimulus, which he helped craft, Nevada’s economy is in crisis, with 14.5 per cent unemployment and the nation’s worst home foreclosure rates.

On the personal front, he’s also famously uncharismatic. His Mormon faith seems out of kilter with a State famous for hedonism. Opponents call him an out-of-touch elitist. “He doesn’t exactly have the swagger, does he?” said Phyllis Thompson, watching proceedings. “Now don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t make him a bad politician, but it doesn’t necessarily make following him all that fun.”

Reid still holds one trump card: his opponent. Against a mainstream Republican, he would be dead and buried. But he faces a rival whose views are so extreme that they might make her unelectable. Angle started off the campaign with a 10 per cent lead among likely voters, but her support has flat-lined in recent months.

Her position on many “wedge” issues offends swathes of voters. Many women are put off by her line on abortion, which she would like completely banned. The chattering classes are un-nerved by her endless gaffes. She claimed the jobless were “spoiled” by unemployment benefits, for example, and recently offended Latino voters by telling a group from a Hispanic school that they looked “a little more Asian."

Reid, for his part, has run a canny race, shoring up his core support and mocking Angle’s almost complete refusal to speak to the press. His team, borrowing from the British tabloid playbook, have a staffer dressed as a chicken, following her campaign. In recent days, they have also called in favours to stump with celebrities with ethnic minority support, such as the boxer Manny Pacquiao.

Angle has meanwhile been in hiding. Her events yesterday were closed to the media.

“Sharron Angle is acting like someone who thinks she’s winning and is now trying to run the clock out,” said David Damore, a political science professor from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Her problem is that although she’s energised her base, she hasn’t yet proven that she can attract outside supporters, and that makes it hard to win. And early voting figures don’t yet give me any indication of a strong Republican surge.”

Damore predicts that, despite grim expectations, Reid will squeak home by a few thousand votes, in an election that will come down to voters deciding which candidate they hate the least. That may hardly be a ringing endorsement of him, or the Obama presidency. But for America’s most prominent career politician, it'd be good enough.

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