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Reid's public option push comes amid tough re-election bid

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Pelosi: 'A brighter future'
  • Senate Majority Leader backs a public insurance option in reform bill
  • Reid is facing a tough re-election battle in his home state of Nevada
  • Former aide says part of his public option push is to win over nervous Democrats
  • Analyst: Reid has a "survival instinct unlike any I've ever seen in politics"

Washington (CNN) -- In a video posted on YouTube dubbed "A call to action," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked Americans to "contact your reps back here in Washington and push hard. We want a health care bill that has a public option."

Several Democratic strategists say while calming a concerned liberal base might be a motivating factor for Reid on the national level, there are different reasons back home in Nevada, where he faces a tough re-election battle.

"Harry Reid is in a lot of trouble," said Jon Ralston, a Nevada political analyst. "It's what I like to call 'Reid fatigue.' "

A blast of emails this week from Reid's political organization pushed the public option hard and sent a not-so-subtle reminder that it was Reid who put it in the Senate health care bill.

"Senator Reid's leadership was on full display. He took a courageous stand in fighting for and including the public option," one email said.

It was all part of a below-the-radar, weeklong effort to try to make sure his gamble to try to pass a Senate health care bill with a public option will pay off.

"I think the base will see that he made a fervent effort. It wasn't just in name only, it wasn't just in talking points, it wasn't just a one-time press conference that he had," says Penny Lee, a former Reid aide.

"Instead, he said, 'I am going to fight for this. I believe in this,' and he is using every tool in his toolbox to say 'Let's get this done."

Lee admits that at least part of Reid's motivation in backing a public option is to reassure an anxious Democratic base.

"I think the base of the party, the more liberal side of the party, has questioned whether or not we could get this done, whether or not the leadership was behind it, and question Sen. Reid because they were still negotiating," Lee said.

At home in Nevada, a liberal political action committee with the express goal of electing progressive candidates to national office launched a new ad that asks, "Is Harry Reid strong enough?"

The 30-second commercial from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee features a longtime Nevada nurse, Lee Slaughter, whose health care provider is refusing to pay for complications dealing with broken hips.

"I...voted for Sen. Harry Reid many times," Slaughter says in the ad. "But in 2010, I'll only be voting on one issue. I'm watching to see if Harry Reid is strong and effective enough as a leader to pass a public health insurance option into law."

The most recent poll of Nevada voters suggests Reid trails both his Republican rivals in hypothetical 2010 matchups.

According to a Mason-Dixon survey commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and released in early October, Reid is down 10 points to Nevada GOP chairwoman Sue Lowden. He is down 5 points to businessman Danny Tarkanian.

The poll also showed that half of Nevada's voters have an unfavorable view of Reid, with 38 percent viewing him favorably.

"He's not the most personable guy. He certainly doesn't have much charisma, but what he does have though is a survival instinct unlike any I've ever seen in politics," Ralston said.

Survival in Nevada now means appealing to independent voters, and they tend to support a government-run health care option.

"His success here is going to play a role or failure is going to play into his main campaign theme which is re-elect me," Ralston said. "'I'm the guy Nevada and the nation needs in Washington. I can get things done.'"

It's a huge risk for Reid if after putting his leadership on the line he can't find the votes for a government-run health care option in the Senate health care bill.

And it's a very real possibility, with Republicans opposed to the public option and moderate Democrats not embracing it. It's part of the reason Reid's aides were split on whether this was the right move.

Right or not, it's clear Reid made the decision and now knows he has to own it regardless of the outcome.

Lee, Reid's former aide, puts it this way:

"Once he committed, as we always used to say, you can't be half-pregnant. Once committed, he went fully on board."

CNN's Dana Bash, Ed Hornick and Alexander Mooney contributed to this report.