Reid Keeps His Balance on ’08

Posted February 27, 2007 at 6:58pm

As the top Senate Democrat and the senior Senator from the newly named No. 2 Democratic Caucus state, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) could be one of the most influential players in his party’s hotly contested race for the White House in 2008.

Yet Reid has vowed to stay on the sidelines and take a pass on trying to be “a kingmaker” among the Democratic presidential hopefuls. And while the Majority Leader plans to refrain from making any endorsements, all eyes undoubtedly will be on Reid’s actions as he balances his top Senate position with playing home-state host to the second-in-the-nation Jan. 19 presidential caucuses.

“It’s a delicate dance,” said one Senate Democratic aide. “He’s mindful of that. He certainly has to be cognizant of it and is going to be careful of where he treads in terms of playing any kinds of favorites or showing any subtle or unintended endorsement.”

As such, Democrats say Reid will have to do more than simply keep his public powder dry. The veteran Senate Democrat — who also is a major player in his state’s political establishment — will have to show impartiality at all levels, especially as he seeks to lead a narrow 51-seat Senate majority and ensure the success of the nascent Nevada Democratic caucus.

“People will be trying to kiss up and vie for his help,” noted one Senate Democratic political operative. “But so what? At the worst case he stays out.”

Of the growing number of Democrats running for president, at least four are Reid’s colleagues, including Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Barack Obama (Ill.). All four have traveled to Nevada in recent weeks, and three — Obama had a prior commitment — participated in a Feb. 21 Democratic forum in Carson City.

More forums and trips are expected. And Reid consistently has said his goal is to encourage all the Democratic presidential contenders to spend as much time courting Nevada caucus-goers as possible.

Jon Summers, Reid’s Nevada spokesman, said Reid’s role in the presidential race was first to strengthen the state’s Democratic Party to secure an early caucus slot, and now to make sure the party has “all the tools it needs to pull this off” and emerge stronger than ever. Summers added that the Majority Leader has no interest in picking a favorite.

“I can’t tell you who, if anyone, he likes,” Summers said. “He’s neutral. And when he says he’s neutral I believe him. He’s cognizant that people are watching and doesn’t want to give any indication that he’s leaning one way or the other.”

Indeed, Reid has been front and center as Nevada takes its turn at early primary state status in 2008. Reid turned out for the recent Democratic debate and has been one of the most prominent advocates for Nevada’s place in the crowded early primary state pool. He is expected to spend a good share of his time helping to bring attention to the caucuses to encourage participation as well as a greater understanding of Western issues, Summers said.

The prominence of Nevada in the nominating process comes as national Democrats look to strengthen their position overall in the Mountain West.

Nevada’s caucus is just five days after Iowa’s and three days before New Hampshire’s primary. South Carolina plays host to the second official primary on Jan. 29.

One Democratic strategist, who isn’t affiliated with any of the presidential camps, said Reid already held significant sway over the race as the Majority Leader in the Senate. But with Nevada’s prominent spot in the primary chase, “he becomes even more of a kingmaker.”

Iowa Democratic Sen. “Tom Harkin was more influential than [then-Minority Leader] Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004,” this source said. “People wanted to become Harkin’s best friend. Even though Reid is the Senate leader, he is the dominant figure in Democratic politics in the state of Nevada.

“That increases his leverage a little bit,” the strategist said.

Steve Elmendorf, a former top adviser to then-Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in 2004, said Reid knows it makes sense to stay neutral — not only for the sake of his stewardship of the Senate, but also for the relevancy of the Nevada primary. Reid wants Nevada to be a prominent player in the quest for the White House nomination, and if he showed any sign of favoritism, the primary caucus would lose some of its clout, Elmendorf said.

“It’s in his self-interest to be an honest broker and make sure they have as successful a caucus as he can.”

Added another Democratic operative: “I think he’ll sit and talk to anyone and have an open-door policy with all of them. He’s going to focus his fundraising prowess on the [Senate Democratic] Caucus and organizing the [Nevada] caucuses.”

That neutrality isn’t without challenges, however. Reid’s son, Rory — Clark County commissioner and a prominent Nevada Democrat in his own right — has signed up with Clinton, a move that some competing camps fear gives her candidacy a Reid brand. Also, the Nevada caucus faces the hurdle of encouraging the Democratic hopefuls to spend money and time courting voters there against the earlier Iowa caucuses and the more established New Hampshire primary.

Another wrinkle for some of the Democratic hopefuls could be new opportunities to compete in Iowa, where former Gov. Tom Vilsack recently opted against a bid. Vilsack’s presence in the primary may have served as a deterrent to some of the other Democrats, who now may rethink how much time and money they spend courting voters in that first Midwestern caucus state versus Nevada.

In the meantime, Democrats certainly will want to stay on the Majority Leader’s good side, especially in the Senate. That could play favorably for Reid when he needs the full weight of his 51 Senators behind his initiatives.

“You’ve got a handful of Senators running for president, and they are going to make sure they don’t piss off Reid,” said the unaffiliated Democratic strategist. “It’s certainly going to play a role.”