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Reid's political future up in the air after 'Negro' comment?

By Ed Hornick, CNN
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Brazile: Reid a 'political survivor'
  • New book details racially insensitive comments made by Sen. Harry Reid
  • Analysts say his comments are unlikely to hurt him with African-American voters in Nevada
  • Polls suggest that Reid is facing a tough re-election campaign
  • GOP strategist says Republicans "should beat" Reid in November

Washington (CNN) -- Despite Republican calls for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to step down from his leadership post over racially insensitive comments he made about President Obama, analysts believe the controversy won't hurt Reid any more than other issues already have.

The Obama controversy is centered on remarks published in the book "Game Change," by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The book cites Reid as saying privately in 2008 that President Obama could succeed as a black candidate partly because of his "light-skinned" appearance and speaking patterns "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Reid apologized to Obama after excerpts from the book were released and Obama said he considered the issue closed.

On Monday, Reid said he was ready to move on.

"I've apologized to everyone with the sound of my voice that I could have used a better choice of words," he told reporters after an event announcing a new energy project in his home state of Nevada. "And I'll continue doing my work for the African-American community."

Republican strategist and CNN contributor Ed Rollins said Reid's flap would only help Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections.

"We should beat him in November. ... This certainly isn't going to help him," Rollins said. "I would rather see Harry Reid sit there and try to explain this away over the next several months and continue to be a leader, then we'll beat him in November."

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But Norman Ornstein, a political scholar with the non-partisan American Enterprise Institute, said the comments are unlikely to hurt politically.

"I think he survives this. [But] I think it's not going to go away immediately," he said. "You're dealing with a guy who's got some political troubles to begin with and is not the smoothest or most articulate leader we've had. And it obviously is a serious distraction for him."

And that distraction comes as recent polling shows Reid facing a tough re-election battle.

Only one-third of Nevada voters have a favorable opinion of him, while 52 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the four-term senator, according to a survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research for the Last Vegas Review-Journal released over the weekend.

Your take: iReporters sound off on Reid's comments

The poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, was conducted January 5-7, before news of Reid's comments.

But Reid is getting some election help from the man the controversy surrounds.

A senior administration official told CNN Monday that Obama will join Reid in Nevada next month to campaign on his behalf.

Jon Ralston, a former political writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 15 years, said Reid has always had "very little margin for error to be able to win" in 2010.

"And considering his approval numbers, this is certainly a fairly large error," he added.

Reid trails three of his possible GOP challengers in hypothetical general election matchups, according to the poll. Reid trails Sue Lowden, Nevada GOP state chairwoman, by 10 points and businessman Danny Tarkanian by eight points. Reid also trails GOP hopeful Sharron Angle by five points. Tarkanian and Lowden are deadlocked in the primary battle among GOP voters.

Reid received 61 percent of the vote in his last race in 2004.

Peter Beinart, a public policy expert at the non-partisan New America Foundation, said the 'Negro' comment is the least of Reid's concerns.

"I think his political problem is that he's in a conservative state in what's looking like a very conservative year," he said. "I think that's his bigger problem than his comment."

Ralston, who now runs The Ralston Report -- a daily e-mail newsletter on politics and business -- said the controversy is unlikely to move African-American Democrats to support Reid's GOP opponents.

"Are there going to be African-Americans here that are going to be disturbed by those comments? Absolutely. Does that mean they are going to vote for a Republican? I doubt it," he said.

Beinart said Reid's comments are unlikely to hurt him with African-Americans because of the state's demographics.

"If Harry Reid loses in Nevada, it's not going to be because of African-American votes," Beinart said. "There's not that many African-Americans in the state anyway. And there may be turnout issues anyway."

Exit polling from the 2008 general election indicates that 10 percent of African-Americans turned out to vote in a year in which minority voter turnout was higher than normal because of Obama's presidency.

Ralston said because of the controversy, African-Americans might not enthusiastically support Reid now -- something the Democrat is "going to have to deal with and something he's trying to tamp down by pointing out his record on issues important to African-Americans."

For his part, Reid said his efforts to integrate the Las Vegas Strip workforce and the gaming industry, among other legislation favored by African-American voters.

One issue that may be hurting Reid is health care reform. The Senate majority leader is playing a large role in pushing the bill through his chamber, but 54 percent of Nevadans oppose the legislation and only 35 percent support it, according to the poll.

"Obviously the timing of this is lousy for Reid as he's just trying to maneuver through what could be an enormous triumph for him with the health care plan," Ornstein said.

Though, according to Beinart, Reid will be viewed as a "pretty effective" majority leader if he gets health care reform passed, opposition groups are already lined up against him.

The Tea Party Express -- one of the national conservative Tea Party organizations -- has released a television ad in Nevada against Reid. The group said they're spending more than $100,000 to air their ad on television in the state starting Monday.

Ralston believes Republicans will certainly try to keep the story in the headlines -- and pour vast resources into taking down the Democratic leader.

"There's going to be more money spent in this state by Republicans and anti-Harry Reid groups than has ever been seen before. And this is just the beginning," he said.

Reid, though, does have some advantages.

"Sen. Reid's campaign advisers have pledged to spend upwards of $25 million to help him win re-election," said Mark Preston, CNN political editor. "That is a lot of money in Nevada. And even though Reid made those comments about Obama, I think that the president will do whatever is necessary to help him win another term. After all, Reid has been one of Obama's closest allies on the Capitol Hill."

And he has Democrats on his side -- from top leaders to African-American politicians in Nevada and in Congress -- including the Congressional Black Caucus.

"What this shows actually is that the great strength that Harry Reid has is the affection and backing of his colleagues on the Democratic side," Ornstein said.

CNN Deputy Political Director Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.