The problem with a demonization strategy based on voter unfamiliarity with a candidate is that the candidate usually gets a chance to either confirm or destroy the impression before an election takes place.  Harry Reid gambled on painting Sharron Angle as a nut, but in the end it was Reid who struggled to explain himself in the only debate in the Senate race for Nevada.  Veteran political analyst Jon Ralston, no fan of Angle, declares her the winner simply by showing Nevadans that she was far from the portrait of a lunatic that Reid had painted:

Angle won because she looked relatively credible, appearing not to be the Wicked Witch of the West (Christine O’Donnell is the good witch of the Tea Party) and scoring many more rhetorical points. And she won because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid looked as if he could barely stay on a linear argument, abruptly switching gears and failing to effectively parry or thrust.

Ralston is not happy with the outcome — he quotes Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and says, “Look upon these works, ye mighty, and despair” — but he also notes that the media reached a consensus on the verdict, at least on Twitter:

NBC’s Chuck Todd: “Reid’s problem tonight is that while Angle wasn’t great, his performance made her look passable.”

Politico’s Dave Catanese: “Utterly subpar.”

Political Wire’s Taegan Goddard: “Reid didn’t knock out Angle but she had him on the ropes. Have to give the edge to Angle …”

Political writer Taylor Marsh may have summed it up best: “Sharron Angle passed the ‘I’m not crazy test’ with flying colors. Focused too. This lady just might pull this off. Reid didn’t take her out.”

Give Ralston some credit here.  It takes a heck of a leap to marry “Ozymandias” with Twitter, but Ralston nails it.  He laments Reid’s terrible performance, starting with a meandering and sometimes incoherent opening statement and continuing through his sarcasm, condescension, and inability to answer Angle’s attacks.  Ralston believes Reid may have talked himself out of his job.

Truthfully, though, Reid talked himself out of his job starting four years ago when he betrayed his constituents and signed onto the radical agendas of Nancy Pelosi and then Barack Obama.  Nevadans had thought they sent an independent, conservative-leaning, pro-life, pro-gun Democrat to the US Senate.  Instead, Reid shilled a massive tax-and-spend agenda.  Sharron Angle just needed to show that she’s not as crazy or extreme as Reid in order to win, and after the last four years, it turns out that her mission wasn’t nearly as tough as Reid’s mission to make her look more extreme than his performance over the past four years.

“Ozymandias” is a poem that speaks to the futility of empire and dynasty.  Although Ralston didn’t mean it in this context, it certainly seems applicable to the Reids, who appear to be heading for ignominious defeat in 2010.

Update: The New Republic wonders why Reid agreed to debate Angle at all, given his strategy of painting her as a lunatic:

Why Harry Reid agreed to have a debate with Sharron Angle is a bit of a mystery to me. If your campaign is based on portraying your opponent as loony, then why give that opponent a chance to look reasonable? Lyndon Johnson never debated Barry Goldwater. Then again, I’m no political strategist. And neither, I’ve come to see, is Harry Reid. So let’s focus on what matters now: that a debate was held in Nevada last night between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican challenger Sharron Angle. And its upshot was—sorry, folks—that Angle improved her chances.

T. A. Frank continues with complaints that Angle “lied,” had “far fewer scruples,” and so on, accusing Angle of being in another solar system at one point in the debate.  Clearly, Frank is no fan of Angle, but spends most of the column spanking Reid for being inadequate to the task and questioning his entire strategy.  But that prompts another question: do we want someone running the US Senate who couldn’t find his own closing statement with both hands and a spotlight, literally?

I’m no fan of televised debates, but they’re a fact of life in politics these days (Frank says that LBJ never debated Barry Goldwater, as if that happened last year).  A refusal to engage would be seen as either haughty arrogance or panicked desperation, especially the latter in a case where an entrenched incumbent spent the past several months painting his opponent as an idiot or lunatic, or a little of both.  Reid had no choice but to engage her, and his carefully constructed facade crumbled under the pressure.