Obama rolls the dice in Las Vegas for key senator

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Stepping into the middle of perhaps the nastiest fight in an election season that has already sparked more fear and loathing than any other in living memory, Barack Obama was last night trying to shore up the shaky re-election campaign of his most senior senator, Harry Reid.

The President was due to hit Las Vegas, the nation's gambling capital, in an effort to alter the course of a colourful but hugely negative battle that has left Mr Reid facing odds of a shade over even money to return to the US Senate after polls close on Tuesday 2 November.

Depending on your point of view, Obama's speech, to a rally at a local middle school, marked either a canny effort to bring out Democratic voters who could decide the fate of an extremely close-run race, or a desperate last throw of the dice by a President who may be about to lose control of both the upper and lower houses of the US legislature.

Either way, it will only add to the pantomime quality of a battle that sees Mr Reid, a 26-year veteran and Democratic leader in the Senate, locked in a fractious battle with Sharron Angle, an ultra-conservative Republican with no experience on the national stage who owes her ascendancy to the support of the right-wing Tea Party movement.

Polls put the two neck-and-neck, with some making Mrs Angle, a former teacher, marginal favourite to unseat the magisterial Washington power-broker responsible for helping craft Mr Obama's $800bn (£510bn) economic stimulus package and managing to steer his totemic reforms of healthcare and Wall Street through the Senate.

"Senator Reid has obviously done a lot to ensure our success in the United States Senate; [who] was a supporter, somebody who urged the president to run very early," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs yesterday. "So there's a lot of respect for what he's been able to do over several years. And it's a very important race."

In an election season marked by anti-incumbent sentiment, Mr Reid is deeply unpopular, with personal approval ratings below 40 per cent. Voters blame him for doing little to ease the pain of an economic crisis that has given Nevada unemployment rates of 14 per cent together with the nation's highest levels of home foreclosures and bankruptcies.

If he were facing any moderate Republican, Mr Reid would therefore almost certainly be doomed. But his opponent's eccentric position on a host of social and economic issues have allowed him to stay in the race, courting swing voters by branding his opponent as: "not just extreme, but dangerous".

Mrs 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, close the Department of Education, increase the rights of gun owners and withdraw the US from the UN. She thinks global warming is a hoax, and is sceptical about evolution. Her campaign adverts are short on policy, and instead urge Mr Reid to "man up!"

To avoid gaffes, she has avoided almost all contact with the media during electioneering, spreading her message via speeches to the party faithful.

Town hall meetings where opposition supporters have managed to bark questions at Mrs Angle have even ended in fisticuffs. But at times, she appears to thrive on conflict: an attack advert released yesterday highlighted the State's dire economic situation and ended with the tagline "Welcome to Nevada Mr President!"

Mr Obama, for his part, hopes his visit to Vegas (part of a four-day tour of swing states) will energise core Democratic voters such as women, ethnic minorities and young people to turn out and vote on polling day.

"Don't ever let anybody tell you that this fight is not worth it," he told supporters in Washington State at the start of the tour on Thursday. "Don't let them tell you that you're not making a difference."