Reporting from Reno — When federal Judge Brian Sandoval stepped off the bench last fall, the political aristocracy all but anointed him as Nevada's next governor.
After all, look at his chief primary opponent.
That would be Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons — gaffe-prone, reviled by many legislators, embroiled in a bitter divorce, accused of extramarital affairs and sued by a cocktail waitress who claimed he tried to assault her.
Yet, politically quirky Nevada has a way of defying conventional wisdom.
Gibbons, whose fundraising has been equivalent to scouring the couch for change, has surprised observers by using the gubernatorial bully pulpit to revive a left-for-dead campaign.
He's tagged his opponent "Spend-It-All Sandoval," stoking conservative fears that the moderate former judge would raise taxes, though a hotel room tax and several fees were raised on Gibbons' watch. A radio ad mocked Sandoval as "another hopey-changey, now-believey Washington, D.C., bureaucrat," though Gibbons served in Congress for a decade.
And, as always, Gibbons has been entertaining, unapologetically gruff and charismatic, in his own fiery way.
When he was asked at a recent debate in Reno whether he supported Arizona's anti-illegal-immigration law, he replied in part, "Absolutely we ought to profile everybody who looks like a terrorist. I don't have a problem with that. But if they want to have a racial profile of Irishmen, then I'm going to question that."
It was unclear whether he was making a policy statement or a joke. The audience laughed.
But Gibbons has done more than crack jokes and lob insults at Sandoval: He's put Sandoval on the defensive and forced him to parrot Gibbons' own conservative talking points.
Sandoval — who was the state's first Latino attorney general — has endorsed suing the federal government over the healthcare overhaul and, veering to the right of Gibbons, supports Arizona's immigration law. At the Reno debate, Sandoval even whipped out a pocket-size copy of the Constitution, a favorite accessory of the "tea party" movement.
"These have always been my philosophies," Sandoval said in an interview, though conservatives are far from convinced.
Although polls show Sandoval with a healthy lead over Gibbons and a third challenger, former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon, going into the June 8 primary, Sandoval's rightward tilt could hamper his campaign for November. Gleeful Democrats have tarred him as a "flip-flopper" on taxes, domestic partnerships and driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.
" Republicans have to choose between three guys who are all saying the same thing," said Mike Trask, a spokesman for presumptive Democratic nominee Rory Reid, whose well-funded campaign is the chief beneficiary of the carnage.
At the recent debate sponsored by a tea party group called Anger Is Brewing, Sandoval was subjected to boos and grumbles from audience members loyal to cowboy-boot-wearing Gibbons. Each time he blasted taxes, they cheered.
"I heard he got on a list of worst governors in the country, but someone must have put that together back east. He's not that bad," said Norma Brownwell, a 73-year-old Reno retiree.
As for Sandoval? "I think he's a sham. He resigned a good position," she harrumphed.
At the same time, conservatives abhor the idea of a Reid — Rory is the son of unpopular U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — moving into the governor's mansion, and polls portray Gibbons as the sole candidate he could beat handily.
In that sense, the primary mirrors the soul-searching of Republicans nationwide: Should they vote practically or ideologically?
The stakes are considerable. The recession has hobbled the once-ascendant Silver State and, in 2011, the governor and part-time Legislature will haggle over a budget chasm of at least $2.5 billion and the redrawing of legislative districts, which will probably include a new congressional seat.
"Maybe Sandoval's not the conservative we want," said activist Chuck Muth, "but if we vote for him, maybe we won't be written out of power for 10 years."
When Gibbons ran in 2006, controversies dogged his campaign: a federal investigation into whether he had accepted gifts from a military contractor, accusations by the cocktail waitress that he had tried to assault her in a parking garage. No charges were filed.
Still, he won, though with less than 50% of the vote. Gibbons declined to be interviewed for this article.
During legislative sessions, Gibbons repeatedly played chicken with the Democratic majority; in 2009, lawmakers overrode 25 of his 48 vetoes, the most in state history, which helped move Sandoval to enter the race.
"We are two completely different people," said Sandoval, whose candidacy was also encouraged by the state's Republican rainmakers. "I'm going to be very engaged with the Legislature."