Nevada Governor's Race Takes Salacious Twist

Early voting started this weekend in Nevada, where the featured race is for governor. Republican Congressman Jim Gibbons had been leading against Democrat Dina Titus, but the outcome is now uncertain after allegations this past week that Gibbons assaulted a woman he'd been drinking with at a restaurant.

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JACKIE LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jackie Lyden. Early voting started this weekend in Nevada, where the featured race is for governor. The contest has been receiving national attention, and not just because of its possible implications for the 2008 presidential race. NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK: Excitement might not be the first word that jumps to your mind when you hear the words gubernatorial race, but apparently it was for the hundreds of Dina Titus and Jim Gibbons supporters who showed up Tuesday night outside a public TV station in Las Vegas.

(Soundbite of chanting crowd)

BURBANK: The atmosphere was very Texas high-school football game, the dedication so fierce, in fact, that even the guys handling barbecue duties for the respective camps saw their grills as political metaphors. Jason Pareda(ph) was cooking up hamburgers on the Republican/Gibbons side.

Mr. JASON PAREDA (Jim Gibbons Supporter): Oh, I've got enough barbecue for sure. Maybe we have a smaller grill, but we've got a faster operation.

BURBANK: Like the Republican model for government, I guess?

Mr. PAREDA: Exactly.

BURBANK: Over on the Titus side, where the Democrats were, Greg Esposito(ph) was standing in front of a grill so big it took three guys from the local pipe fitters union to work it.

Mr. GREG ESPOSITO (Dina Titus Supporter): Look, size matters, okay? We can grill more, faster, for more people, help more people out, get more people served faster, so they can focus on the issues.

BURBANK: As the grill debate raged outside, the political debate went on inside the studios. Gibbons, who's been a lawyer, geologist, airline pilot and U.S. congressman, accused Titus of what amounts to a high crime in some parts of Nevada: raising taxes.

Representative JIM GIBBONS (Republican, Nevada): In my opinion, we need a governor who has both statewide perspective and the discipline to say no to higher taxes. Unfortunately, my opponent has neither.

BURBANK: Meanwhile, Titus, a long-time state senator and professor at UNLV, did what she's been doing most of the campaign, tying Gibbons to an unpopular Congress, where he's been serving the last 10 years.

State Senator DINA TITUS (Democrat, Nevada): Ask yourself if you like what's happening in Washington or if you think we can do better in Nevada. Never has the choice been clearer.

BURBANK: Gibbons hails from tiny Sparks, Nevada, and he's delighted in painting Titus as an outsider. She still carries a thick accent from her native Georgia. Lately, though, Titus has gotten a big boost from the many high-profile Democrats who've been visiting Nevada now that it matters in the 2008 presidential nominating game. The state's presidential caucus has been moved up to just after Iowa's, and that makes the gaming state a player in a very big casino.

The morning after her debate with Gibbons, Titus showed up at the Coffee Pub Restaurant looking a little weary. For months, she's been canvassing the state trying to conquer her biggest challenge, picking up votes in what Nevadans call the cow counties.

State Sen. TITUS: We've gone to candidates nights, I've gone to horse races, cantaloupe festivals. I even judged the Miss Pahrump Beauty Pageant. So we are out there everywhere.

BURBANK: Fifteen-year-old Devyn Moen took the tiara as Miss Pahrump, in case you were wondering. While Titus is favored to take Clark County, where most of the state's residents live, Jim Gibbons is more popular in rural Nevada, where voter turnout is actually much higher. Gibbons, a decorated war veteran and all-around popular guy in the Silver State, had been cruising along with a comfortable 10-point lead, until...

(Soundbite of KVBC-TV broadcast)

ANNOUNCER: This is News 3 at Noon with Sue Manteris and Mitch Truswell.

Mr. MITCH TRUSWELL (Anchor): Gubernatorial candidate Jim Gibbons fires back over allegations he assaulted a 32-year-old woman. In a series of drunken 911 calls, Chrissy Mazzeo claims the congressman physically assaulted her last Friday.

BURBANK: Flanked by his wife and his lawyer, Gibbons flatly denied the woman's claim.

Rep. GIBBONS: As a nearly 30-year member of our nation's military, I try to conduct myself as an officer and a gentleman, and my actions that night were consistent with that practice.

BURBANK: Gibbons' version of events is that he was helping the woman find her car when she slipped, and he caught her. Her inebriation, though, and the fact that she declined to press charges, has caused many, even some Dina Titus supporters, like Randy Crawford of Henderson, to wonder if the whole was a dirty trick.

Mr. RANDY CRAWFORD (Dina Titus Supporter): It gives me a little pause for thought about the tactics, you know? It makes me think about what - I mean, was this a setup? I mean, it almost seems too good to be true, doesn't it?

BURBANK: New polling data is scheduled to be released this week, and most experts figure Gibbons will still lead, but only by a few percentage points. It's another good sign for Democrats in the West who a year ago probably weren't expecting a challenge for the Nevada's governor's mansion. Now they are, and with two weeks left to go, it's anybody's race.

Luke Burbank, NPR News.

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