The Nevada Democrat - who, over the years, has called Alan Greenspan a hack, Washington tourists smelly and President George W. Bush a liar - was pummeled by Republicans on Sunday for impolitic comments about President Barack Obama's potential for winning the White House.
In their book "Game Change," authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann say Reid described then-candidate Obama as a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect" whom many voters would embrace.
Though Reid apologized Saturday for his "poor choice of words" - and the president accepted - his remarks dominated the Sunday talk shows and injected the volatile issue of race into his already troubled reelection campaign.
The controversy threatened to depress black turnout in Nevada, where 77 percent of eligible African-American voters turned out in 2008.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele led the charge. "There is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it - when it comes from the mouths of their own," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "But if it comes from anyone else, it's racism. It's either racist or it's not. And it's inappropriate, absolutely."
Steele, along with Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, said Reid's remarks justify the same level of outrage once directed at former Sen. Trent Lott. In 2002, the Mississippi Republican stepped down as majority leader after implying the country might have been better off if Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina had been elected president in 1948, when he ran as a segregationist.
"There's a huge difference" between Reid and Lott, Reid spokesman Jon Summers said Sunday. "Sen. Reid was one of the first people to encourage Obama to run for president and worked hard to help him win. . . . His point was that he believed the country was ready to elect an African American president, and he was right."
Summers said Reid will remain majority leader and continue his re-election bid.
A Senate fixture for more than two decades, Reid is known for remarks sometimes more curmudgeonly than careful, and Nevadans haven't necessarily found that endearing. Despite his substantial campaign treasury, the backing of state movers and shakers, a knack for winning squeaker elections and a state Republican Party in disarray, Reid has trailed GOP candidates in poll after poll.
"He always shares exactly what's on his mind with little regard to perception or consequences, and it's one of the reasons he is the most vulnerable incumbent senator in either party," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.