Only one thing is certain in this year's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate race: the date, June 8. That's several months earlier than in past decades, which means the end game has begun, candidates have mapped out their strategies, and voters have just nine weeks to decide.
In a Wild West contest with a dozen contenders, five have emerged from the pack, and all have a potential path to victory, some more narrow than others.
The GOP front-runner, Sue Lowden, a former state senator and casino executive, has the money, name recognition and connections to win, and she's the candidate to beat, according to political insiders and experts keeping a scorecard in the GOP bid to defeat Democrat Sen. Harry Reid.
Danny Tarkanian is a known quantity, too, but the former UNLV basketball star is battling from behind after getting lost in the shadow of Lowden's aggressive TV and radio ad campaign.
Sharron Angle, the former Reno assemblywoman who has a core group of conservative supporters, is little known in Southern Nevada, not as well financed as the other major players and is struggling to convince party regulars and real voters that she can win.
John Chachas, a nearly unknown New York investment banker come home, has deep pockets and has burst onto the scene with a big media buy to highlight his rural Nevada roots.
Also in the long-shot category is Las Vegas Assemblyman Chad Christensen, a conservative Mormon and last-minute entry in the race who believes he has a chance because of his support in the largest district in the state, which could help him get the estimated 35,000 to 40,000 votes needed to win.
Throw in the factors of the Tea Party movement of conservatives and disarray within the state Republican Party and anything can happen between now and the primary.
"This is going to be the most titanic political battle in Nevada history," said Guy Rocha, a Nevada historian and former state archivist, pointing to the record number of candidates and the national GOP effort to unseat Reid from his Senate majority leader spot. "If the Republicans are serious about beating Harry Reid they've got to get past this tower of babble" with GOP contenders seeking to be heard above the din. "You don't battle Harry Reid without having a united front. June 8th will be the day of reckoning. And then on June 9th they will have to come together."
Here's a look at the top candidates, their strengths and weaknesses, where they stand on the issues, how they're doing with media, money and message and what their path to victory might be.
Strengths: The former state senator and gaming executive has with her husband, Paul, run four casinos in Las Vegas and Laughlin and created thousands of jobs in Nevada, a plus in today's 2-year-old recession where the state's unemployment rate is at a record 13-plus percent.
The former chairwoman of the state Republican Party also has the backing of mainstream GOP leaders across the state and is seen by the national party as a tough campaigner capable of beating Reid. Lowden, in fact, already is focusing her main attacks on Reid, saying he hasn't done enough for Nevada.
"She clearly thinks she's going to win so she's starting her general election campaign," said David Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Everyone else in the primary is playing follow the leader and with Lowden and Tarkanian it's becoming nasty."
Weaknesses: Her record, as a casino chief, GOP leader and a lawmaker, which gives opponents plenty to pick apart. The Reid campaign has been releasing streams of documents against Lowden, including a set that showed she forced a group of workers to sign away their health care coverage at the Santa Fe hotel-casino during a battle with the unions, violating fair labor practices, a judge ruled. Other documents detail health and safety code problems at her casino properties that had to be fixed.
The Reid campaign also has dug into financial reports of the Lowden family gaming company, Archon Corp., to show Paul Lowden, as Archon chief executive officer, was paid $200,000 in bonuses in 2004 and again last year when the Archon-run Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall in Laughlin dropped 106 employees and stopped matching employee contributions to 401k accounts.
As a lawmaker, Lowden has said she never voted for raising taxes and blocked efforts to do so, but her record when she was in the Legislature in the early 1990s shows she did on occasion back fees and other levies that critics consider the same as taxes on businesses.
Issues: Lowden focuses on eight hot topics on her Web site, including reducing taxes and federal spending, cutting health care costs through medical liability reforms and opening up competition across states lines, enforcing border security to prevent illegal immigration and creating jobs by cutting taxes such as capital gains and payroll and on businesses so companies will do more hiring. Lowden also says she supports gun rights and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and opposes abortion, all stock GOP positions, although as a private citizen Lowden once supported a woman's right to choose abortion.
Media: Lowden went up first with TV and radio ads on Feb. 2, putting out four commercials focused on her biography and issues statewide in a $250,000 bet that paid off by moving her out ahead of the competition. Her campaign plans another round of new commercials to start in early April.
Money: She's got it, and there's more where that came from, including from her own purse strings. The multimillionaire pledged to match dollar-for-dollar what she raised in the first quarter of 2010 ending March 31, which was about $500,000, so she added a total $1 million to her coffers. That half a million is far less than the $819,000 she raised in the last quarter of 2009, suggesting she may have to spend more of her own money to stay aggressive through primary Election Day.
Path to Victory: Don't stumble or let GOP opponents lure her into debates on issues that can't help her campaign, something Tarkanian has been trying to do more and more in recent weeks.
"A front-runner will try to stay positive and bury other candidates with ads paid for by their superior resources," said David Ryfe, a University of Nevada, Reno professor and political communication expert. "Laggers will get more aggressive, go negative and try to bring down their opponents numbers."
Quote: "Reducing taxes is not just an economic issue for me. It is a moral issue."
Strengths: He's not Danny Smith. He's got name recognition in Nevada thanks to his days as a UNLV, basketball star under his famous coaching father, Jerry Tarkanian, two decades ago. And his mother is Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, a prominent Democrat.
A trained lawyer, Tarkanian has real estate business experience. He also knows how to campaign, although he lost both his previous races, including a statewide general election contest in 2006 for secretary of state. Portraying himself as an anti-big government conservative, Tarkanian has won approval from some Tea Party movement backers, including Chuck Heath, father of former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Weaknesses: Tarkanian has no record, and he also hasn't been able to win an election yet, making his U.S. Senate bid quite a leap from his failed 2004 state Senate campaign.
"The one who's a mystery to me is Tarkanian. I'm not sure what his constituency is," Damore said. "It strikes me that he says whatever each audience wants to hear. And he keeps stumbling."
Damore cited the recent dispute between the Tarkanian and Lowden campaigns when Tarkanian said on Alan Stock's local KXNT-AM, 840 radio talk show program that he never used the word "socialism" in a robo-call in which he attacked government bailouts that he claims Lowden has defended. She maintains she has always been against the bailouts of the banking and auto industries.
A review of the taped call shows Tarkanian did use the word socialism, although he didn't directly call Lowden a socialist. Tarkanian explained the mistake away by saying, "In our robo-call, we said Sue Lowden has supported the bailout, which is a socialism program. The financial bailout which had the government takeover of ownership of private companies is socialism by definition."
Issues: He has been the most outspoken among the Republican candidates about developing Yucca Mountain into a nuclear reprocessing site, saying it could create thousands of jobs, bring millions of dollars into the state and boost UNLV and UNR into high-level research centers. He also has attacked so-called pork projects, or those special state spending deals lawmakers attach to federal bills.
Media: Tarkanian held his paid media fire until recently, then unleashed several radio ads and two TV ads aimed at portraying him as the anti-establishment candidate and telling his personal story as the father of four and youth mentor. One TV spot criticized a $3.4 million federal project to build a protective tunnel for turtles under a Florida highway as part of the stimulus bill Republicans have attacked.
Money: Tarkanian has been reaching out to his former famous sports friends and family contacts to raise money, particularly in California where he and his father have Fresno ties. He raised roughly $445,000 in the first quarter of 2010, a surprising show of strength. His campaign manager, Jamie Fisfis, said he's confident Tarkanian will be able to raise enough to be competitive, and plans to steadily increase his media buys through primary Election Day.
Path to Victory: A fierce competitor, Tarkanian is targeting primary voters by doing nearly nonstop retail politics across the state and by focusing late media ads on rural Nevada cable stations such as CNN and Fox News while planning to hit Clark County harder in the end, Fisfis said.
"When you get into May, what you did in February is rarely remembered," Fisfis said in defense of the late-drive strategy. "A crowded field also presents an opportunity for people to carve out a niche. When people keep taking a piece of the pie, the winner's going to have a lower and lower threshold for how many votes are needed to win."
Quote: "Expanding the role of the federal government and increasing federal spending is the last thing this country needs right now."
Strengths: She has a base of loyal supporters, especially in Northern and rural Nevada where she has lived. They admire her conservative legislative record during four Assembly terms, 1999-2005, particularly holding the line against tax and fee increases and big government programs. She's a strong grass-roots campaigner and narrowly lost two GOP primary races to establishment candidates: state Sen. Bill Raggio in 2008 and Dean Heller in the 2006 congressional race.
Weaknesses: Angle has little name recognition in vote-rich Clark County and the very conservative credentials that gain her solid support in the primary could be a hurdle to broadening her base enough to win more moderate and independent voters in the general election against Reid.
Issues: Angle often cites the U.S. Constitution in laying out her positions on limiting taxes and protecting people's rights to property, guns and life, for example, a stance that marries up with members of the Tea Party movement who believe the founding document calls for a small federal government.
Media: The Angle campaign has started gathering footage for a TV ad but so far has done only one radio spot, relying little on paid media so far to get her message out.
Money: It's tight. She had only about $146,000 cash on hand at the end of last year after raising a healthy $584,909 in the last three months of 2009, so every penny will count in her campaign.
Path to Victory: Keep her head down campaigning on a grass-roots level, do as many events in Clark County as possible and hope that the current leaders Lowden and Tarkanian split the vote while other candidates skim off more, clearing the way for Angle to eke out a nonmajority victory.
"A crowded primary is a place where someone like Angle is very well positioned. She's got the conservative bona fides," Damore said. "Angle should be the one who Lowden is afraid of."
Quote: "Don't read my lips, just read my record and you will learn that I am a solid consistent conservative."
Strengths: A first-time candidate, he's a true outsider in a year when voters nationwide are looking for someone fresh, although he's been involved in GOP fundraising circles in New York and on the East Coast, which gives him an in with top-money types who could help fund his campaign.
The former banker also knows his way around a financial spreadsheet and may be the most qualified to help Nevada and the nation recover from the economic recession.
Weaknesses: He hasn't lived in Nevada for two decades and hasn't decided whether to have his children live and go to school in the state if he wins, saying he wants his family around him as much as possible.
Issues: He has written and posted on his Web site the most in-depth issue papers, including his ideas on reducing dependence on importing fossil fuels, housing and financial recovery, expanding Nevada's economy beyond gaming and tourism and market-based health care reform.
"Most of the candidates in this race are conservative, and all have access to the standard national talking points on issues, but those who can step outside the comfort zone of talking points and delve into complicated issues are much harder to find," said Ryan Erwin, his campaign manager.
Media: He waited until late March, but came out with a heavy media blitz: two TV commercials airing statewide and radio ads focused on introducing him as a man with deep rural Nevada roots and as an experienced businessman. The initial buy of up to $200,000 launches what's expected to be a heavy campaign since he is barely a blip on Nevadans' radar two months before early voting starts May 22.
Money: Lots of it. The multimillionaire made headlines by lending himself $1.3 million, boosting his last quarter 2009 fundraising to a total of $1.9 million. He began 2010 with nearly $1.7 million in cash on hand, and he's still got roughly $1.25 million in the bank as of March 31.
Path to Victory: Hope voters start paying attention to what he's saying and pull a Scott Brown, the Republican Massachusetts U.S. Senate victor who recently came out of nowhere to stun the political world, giving every outsider candidate across the land a glimpse of the possible.
"It's a real uphill battle for him. He's at zero," a skeptical Damore said.
Quote: "The ugly truth is the Silver State has made an inadequate effort to diversify its economic base and we're now paying the price."
Strengths: The only sitting lawmaker in the race, Assemblyman Christensen has shown he knows how to campaign and win and has a perfect victory streak to date. Like Angle, he's got a strong conservative voting record against taxes and for cutting government spending.
Weaknesses: He jumped into the race late and will have trouble raising enough money to run a robust campaign. The small-business owner also has had past personal financial troubles.
Issues: A strict constitutionalist like Angle, he preaches a free-market economy that would eliminate taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest as well as the estate tax, an argument his GOP opponents make as well. He also touts the "sanctity of life" and marriage on his Web site.
Media: The campaign is still putting its ad plans together.
Money: Christensen, a Mormon, is expected to tap the in and out-of-state conservative church community for financial backing. Because he attended Brigham Young University, he knows the sons of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, also a Mormon, who created the Free and Strong America PAC to help fund the campaigns of conservative candidates such as Christensen.
Path to Victory: Every vote will count, and Christensen points out he won nearly 40,000 in his vast district to win the general election. His brother, Cory, has run his previous campaigns and is considered an election strategy whiz, able to target voters with the right conservative message. Still, the odds appear to be against Christensen when the stronger alternative conservative Angle is on the ballot.
"He could get the Mormon vote, but that doesn't win you statewide elections,'' historian Rocha said.
Quote: "I believe in the greatness of the American people. If government gets out of the way, we will prosper again."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.