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Nevada's voters lose their taste for tea

The Democrats were braced for defeat – and then the Republican Party got stuck with Sharron Angle

"Lord, we pray for our candidates," said the speaker, kicking off with a call to prayer. "We ask for you to help them, and to hit the Democrats. We ask for you to hit the liberals, to hit the Senate, hit the Congress, and to carry the people of America to the polls. Let them vote for your glory, in Jesus, under his precious name."

It's Sunday afternoon in a community centre a short drive from the Las Vegas strip, and the Nevada State Republicans are holding a town hall meeting. Having said "Amen" to the party-political prayer, read by a local Pentecostal minister and conservative talk-radio host called Pastor Natalie Yafari, the assembled punters sing the Star-Spangled Banner. After that, they sit and politely applaud as roughly a dozen speakers take to the stage and explain the Republican platform in America's forthcoming mid-term elections. To wit: taxes are bad; government spending is out of control (unless it's on the military); healthcare reform should be repealed; illegal immigrants, abortion, gay marriage and President Barack Hussein Obama must be stopped. Good things, judging by the crowd reaction, include, God, guns, patriotic clothing, and the US Constitution.

We are among the Tea Party, the grassroots movement which has emerged to dominate discourse within the Republicans. Their frenetic brand of libertarian right-wingery is shaped by talk radio, Fox News hosts such as Glenn Beck, and "Mama Grizzly" herself, Sarah Palin. Nevada is currently the battleground for one of the movement's most totemic battles. Democrat Harry Reid, 24-year veteran of the US Senate, where he is the party's leader, is struggling to retain his seat against the colourful Republican candidate and Tea Party favourite Sharron Angle.

On paper, the election should be a walkover for the Republicans. Mr Reid is deeply unpopular, with approval ratings of around 40 per cent. Voters are also deeply disaffected with the Democrats, who they blame for local unemployment rates of 14 per cent and the nation's highest level of home foreclosures. Yet the polls are running neck-and-neck. The reason: Ms Angle's extreme position on the political spectrum, which helped her win an unlikely victory in the Republican primary earlier this year, but has since been a handicap when it comes to reaching voters outside the party faithful.

Ms Angle is opposed to almost all taxes. She would like to ban abortion, even in rape cases. She wants to privatise social security, dismantle healthcare reform, increase the rights of gun owners and withdraw the US from the UN. It goes without saying that she also thinks global warming is a hoax and would like to send illegal immigrants back to whence they came.

Those views play well in party circles. "Sharron Angle is a true conservative who believes in the constitution of the United States," is how Johnny Jackson, a Republican activist, put it. "She's the only person who'll do something about the Mexicans flooding in here. You English people should know about how that feels, with the problem you're having with them Muslims."

But some of the crankier views of Ms Angle and her supporters are for now keeping Mr Reid in the race. His campaign ads say Ms Angle is "not just extreme, but dangerous". Jonathan Chait, writing at The New Republic, recently dubbed her: "A genuine lunatic." The Tea Party's Nevada chairman, Syd James, was forced to resign yesterday after a tape on which Ms Angle can heard badmouthing Republican party leaders as "good old boys" was made public.

The eventual outcome of Nevada's election is therefore a bellweather for races across the US, where Democratic incumbents face headline-prone, Tea Party-endorsed Republican challengers on 2 November.

With so much to play for, you might expect Ms Angle to be pounding the campaign trail. But in recent weeks, she has gone to ground, appearing unannounced at just a handful of events, and giving few interviews. The policy is based on a simple reality: almost every time Sharron Angle opens her mouth, she puts her foot in it. Early in the campaign, YouTube clips showed her seeming to endorse abolition of social security. A Christian conservative, she has questioned whether schools should teach evolution and said the unemployed's benefits have "spoiled" them. At a Lutheran secondary school in Las Vegas, one of her rare public appearances ended in a punch-up between supporters and opponents.

At times, Ms Angle plays up to stereotype. One campaign newsletter showed her firing a .44 magnum called the "Dirty Harry Hand Cannon". In April, she began a speech to gun enthusiasts by saying: "You know... I feel a little lonely today. I usually bring Smith and Wesson along!" This week a tape recording emerged of her saying her party establishment was insufficiently right wing: "The Republicans have lost their standards; they've lost their principles."

Ms Angle's current low profile therefore represents a percentage play by her campaign, who are hoping to avoid further public gaffes.

"I've worked on campaigns before when we've literally sent a candidate out of state for the last week of the race so he didn't screw up," says Mark Peplowski, a political scientist at the University of Southern Nevada. "If I were running Angle's campaign I would do the same: hide her away... She doesn't know how to handle herself."

Even when Ms Angle's not present, her events teeter on the brink of farce. The town hall meeting, in a black neighbourhood, was supposed to represent an effort to reach out to ethnic minorities. Yet it saw one speaker, who complained about "illegal Mexicans," shouted down by another, who said undocumented workers should be referred to in politically-correct terms: as "Hispanics".

Other attendees circulated the canard that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Like some 25 per cent of Americans, and more than half of Republican voters, they further believe (against all evidence) that the President is secretly a Muslim.

This, of course, is gravy to Harry Reid. By sitting back and watching, as his opponent and her supporters veer away from the mainstream, the grizzled political veteran is hoping to win the middle ground and sneak the narrowest of victories.

David Damore, a politics professor at the University of Nevada, believes Ms Angle's rhetoric on immigration will also alienate Latinos, a quarter of Nevada's population. In the nation's gambling capital, the Republicans bet on Sharron Angle could therefore look foolish on polling day.