Reid skips news briefings while waging a tough re-election battle back in Nevada

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has limited his exposure to the national media since Congress returned from the August recess by canceling three of his weekly news conferences.

Traditionally, the Senate Democratic leader has held pen-and-pad sessions on Thursdays, giving reporters their most extended time to question him and his leadership team.

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Reid’s senior spokesman, Jim Manley, said the Democratic leader is not deliberately limiting his exposure. Instead, Reid is seeking other ways to get his message out.

Manley said Reid has also given speeches on the Senate floor and engaged in debate with other senators, in addition to some news conferences.

 “Just because you usually have pen-and-pads on Thursdays doesn’t mean you can’t have other ideas,” Manley said. “We’re open to other avenues.”

Reid is in his first reelection race since becoming the Senate majority leader and is facing his toughest challenge in a decade.

Recent polls show him trailing two lesser-known Republican challengers.

Giving a speech on the Senate floor or debating with another colleague gives Reid a chance to get his message out. But it also reduces the chances of Reid getting caught off guard by a question or making a gaffe or controversial remark.

Reid called former President George W. Bush a “loser” in 2005, during a civics conversation at a high school in the months after he became the Democratic leader. He later called the White House to apologize.

Previously he had called Bush a “liar.”

This year, Reid said the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) cancer was in remission, a statement aides had to walk back.

Reid held a pen-and-pad session in early August to criticize conservative tactics at Democratic town hall meetings, holding up a piece of plastic AstroTurf to illustrate his contention that the protests were manufactured to stir controversy. Instead of focusing on the questionable tactics of conservative strategists, reporters pounced on Reid’s claim that the GOP is “being run  by a talk show host.”

“Every time Reid goes out to do a press conference or speak with reporters, his staff cringes because they don’t know what he’s going to say,” said Jon Ralston, a political analyst based in Las Vegas. “I’m sure they will limit his opportunities to make gaffes. His standing is so fragile that they can’t afford to make it any worse.”

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Reid’s office pursued the new media strategy during the second week of September. Instead of a regular pen-and-pad briefing on the first floor of the Capitol, Reid and other leaders held a news conference in the Senate’s radio and television studio to discuss President Barack Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress the night before.

The week after, Reid canceled the Thursday pen-and-pad. Instead, he delivered a speech the day before at the Congressional Hispanic Institute’s annual awards gala.

The following week, Reid canceled the pen-and-pad to hold a floor colloquy with other Democratic leaders in response to Republican charges that Democratic healthcare reform plans would make deep cuts to Medicare. That same day, Reid held a rally with healthcare workers on the Capitol’s east lawn.

Reid’s spokesman pointed out that the leader still often holds short press conferences with reporters on Tuesdays after the weekly Senate Democratic lunch. Reid fielded healthcare questions Tuesday afternoon, standing alongside Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

Reid has had to balance his responsibilities as Democratic leader with the rigors of running for reelection in other ways.

Reid canceled the Columbus Day recess that was scheduled this week so the Senate could focus on advancing healthcare reform. The main job of passing an overhaul now falls to Reid, who is tasked with merging bills passed by the Finance and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committees. But Reid is cutting the workweek short so he can fly home to attend an early-morning fundraiser on Friday in Reno with Vice President Joe Biden.

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A Mason-Dixon poll published last week showed former Nevada GOP chairwoman Sue Lowden leading Reid 49 percent to 39 in a hypothetical match-up. It also showed GOP candidate Danny Tarkanian leading Reid 48 percent to 43.

With flagging poll numbers, Reid cannot afford to throw punches quite as freely as last year.

“Any time you represent a state that is not aligned with your agenda here, you create dissonance, and that’s the challenge they have,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who defeated then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) in a stunning 2004 upset.

Reid’s aides dismiss comparisons between Reid and Daschle, noting that there are 110,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Nevada. But Republicans retort that Bush won the state twice.

“My guess is that his numbers are reflective of the fact that he has a state that perceives the direction the Democratic Party in Washington is going is not the correct direction,” Thune said. “His numbers are probably reflective of that misalignment of where his state is and where his party’s misalignment is here.”