Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., went face-to-face tonight with his Republican opponent Sharron Angle in a debate focused on a wide variety of issues, including the economy, health care and "don't ask don't tell."
Angle attacked Reid for his voting record, while the Democratic senator attempted to paint his challenger as "extreme," saying her views would destroy Social Security and health care.
For both Angle and Reid, the debate was a test of whether they could go beyond attacks and reinforce their message on issues pertinent to voters.
"I think the senator's challenge is what his challenge has been since he came to public office," said Democratic consultant Billy Vassiliadis. "He doesn't speak in 60-second sound bites. He wants to share information and a lot of details. ... I think the challenge for him is to hone in on himself and focus on himself."
In an interview with ABC News' Jonathan Karl earlier today, Reid said more needs to be done to tackle unemployment, but defended his own record in the Senate.
"We have worked really really hard, but it was such a deep hole," Reid said. "And I wish we could've done more, and I look back, I realize how much more we have to do."
Angle challenge was also to focus the debate on the issues rather than herself. The Republican candidate has frequently found herself at the center of controversy about her past statements, but experts say the key in the upcoming weeks will be to talk about the economy and build on the national discontent against President Obama and a Democratically controlled Congress.
Reid and Angle are in a tight race that experts say will eventually boil down to how many Nevadans turn out at the polls.
Angle has the money advantage. She raised $14.3 million in the third quarter alone, an unprecedented number for any Senate candidate.
But Reid has the Democratic registration advantage and a bigger "Get Out The Vote" campaign effort.
"It's really difficult to get a handle on what's going on out there and it's going to depend almost entirely on the turnout," said Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston. "If the Democrats can turn out a reasonable number of voters, Reid has a chance. But if, in the end, he's so swamped by the enthusiasm among Republican voters, he's going to lose."
Reid's campaign has mostly focused on attacking what it characterizes as Angle's radical views, unearthing old sound bites from the conservative candidate saying she's not in the business of job creation and calling for "Second Amendment remedies."
"She's certainly extreme. Any one that wants to talk about Medicare being unconstitutional. ... Any one that wants to talk about abolishing, phasing out, killing Social Security is a little extreme," Reid told ABC News today. "The one thing I think is interesting that she never talks about is the fact that she complains about the health insurance reform we did, but she never mentions that she is a person who receives through her husband a federal pension."
More recently, Reid's campaign has attempted to turn the attention toward Reid himself, portraying the senator as an experienced lawmaker who will bring back money to the state for economic projects.
Angle, on the other hand, is riding the anti-incumbent wave. She has blasted Reid on taxes, spending, supporting President Obama's stimulus plan and even using taxpayer money to pay for Viagra for child molesters and sex offenders.
Angle attempted to portray tonight's debate as a contrast between Washington, represented by a career politician well skilled at debates, and the rest of the country.
But Angle herself is no stranger to controversy. Even before she won the primary, Angle came under fire for opposing federal government programs popular among Americans such as Social Security and Medicare.
Harry Reid in a Neck-and-Neck Race with Sharron Angle
Most recently, she was derided for suggesting that sharia law is taking hold in Dearborn, Mich., and Frankford, Texas. Dearborn is governed by the U.S. Constitution and the town of Frankford was annexed by Dallas in 1975.
Republicans cite Angle's whopping fundraising figures as a sign of her popularity and say the Tea Party-favored candidate shouldn't be discounted.
Angle, buoyed by national Tea Parties, beat former state Republican chairwoman Sue Lowden in the primaries in an upset that stunned the Republican establishment.
But Republicans threw their full support behind her in what they see as a chance to topple the Senate majority leader in a replay of 2004, when Republicans regained majority in the Senate by defeating Tom Daschle.
Danny Tarkanian, who also ran against Angle in the Republican primary but now supports the GOP candidate, said Angle's challenge will be to focus on issues where she can hit Reid's record.
"The race is about Harry Reid and the economy," Tarkanian said. "Sharron's objective has got to be to keep the focus away from her and on Reid and the economy. And if she does, she'll be in great shape."
Reid has stepped up campaign events in recent weeks, bringing Democratic bigwigs like former President Bill Clinton and President Obama to Nevada.
Both were needed to energize Democrats. In a climate where enthusiasm within the party is relatively low, that push will help.
"They're coming out for one reason and one reason only, and that's to energize the base turnout, which Reid needs," Ralston said. "He needs to bridge that enthusiasm gap. He needs veteran Democratic voters to turn out, that there's a perceived and a real lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket. So yes, he needs that help."
Clinton energized the crowd for Reid Tuesday night, and Obama will make his third trip to Nevada next week to attend a rally for the majority leader.