Sue Lowden flops down onto a swivel-recliner and starts digging in her purse. She pulls out a bottle of Vitamin C and pops one into her mouth.
"I feel something coming on," she says, then leans back to take in her surroundings -- the cramped inside of a Monaco Executive RV, a 9-year-old road warrior that's her official Senate campaign bus. It's near the start of a weeklong tour of rural Nevada and she's already feeling worn out.
"I need a plane!" she jokes.
"Buses are great moving campaign billboards," consultant Robert Uithoven reminds her.
Lowden's photo is plastered on one side of the 40-foot-long RV, decorated with scenes from the Las Vegas Strip to the "Reno" sign, from the old mining town of Virginia City to Fallon's Blue Angels flying in formation, from the Sierra Nevada to Thunderbirds at Nellis Air Force Base.
The bus all but screams: I am Nevada.
And, Lowden's campaign might add, I'm not Washington, and I'm not Harry Reid, the four-term Democratic U.S. senator Lowden wants to unseat if she can survive the Republican primary.
Which is what this 1,000-mile trek is about, from Laughlin at the southern tip of the state to Reno up north, aimed at introducing Lowden to a crop of mostly conservative voters who turn out in force.
What is there to know about Sue Lowden?
There's the public Lowden, the former TV reporter and 1980s anchorwoman in Las Vegas, the state senator in the early 1990s, and the multimillionaire casino owner with her husband, Paul.
There's the long-legged beauty queen, the 18-year-old who toured the world and went to Vietnam with Bob Hope and the USO, dancing in a line of girls wearing go-go boots and miniskirts, and the 1973 Miss New Jersey who finished second runner-up in the Miss America contest.
And there's the private Lowden, the 10-year-old whose father left her mother, the teenage waitress from New Jersey whose grandparents were Lithuanian immigrants, and the mother of a teenage son who had a drug and alcohol problem and died under mysterious circumstances.
It all will be under scrutiny: public accolades, personal triumphs, private tragedies.
Why put yourself through the electoral wringer?
"We had a kitchen table conversation," Lowden says, looking over at husband Paul. "I had to decide whether I had the stamina and the will to do it. And we decided this is the most important thing I could do in my life right now, to fix the mess this country is in."
Paul Lowden adds, "She's doing it for the right reasons. She doesn't need a job. She's a patriot."
KICKING THINGS OFF IN ELY
Lowden's kickoff primary campaign blitz begins in Ely on Saturday, Jan. 16, with a Lincoln Day breakfast. The RV debuts at a fireworks show that night in the seat of White Pine County.
On Monday, Lowden rides with her 10-year-old granddaughter, Vanessa, in the Martin Luther King Jr. parade in downtown Las Vegas, where rain makes for a soggy event.
"I got soaked," Lowden says after carrying her own bags onto the RV to hit the road for a tour of Laughlin, Reid's hometown of Searchlight, Pahrump, Beatty, Goldfield, Tonopah, Mina, Hawthorne, Yerington, Minden, Carson City, Dayton and Reno to open her Northern Nevada campaign headquarters.
"We plan to win every county, and you can't win unless you show up," says Uithoven, a native Nevadan from Reno who ran Gov. Jim Gibbons' campaign.
Showing up could be Lowden's motto. It's how she got the USO gig with Bob Hope, who persuaded her to change her name from Pluskoski to Plummer.
"They weren't looking for the person with the most talent," says Lowden, who could play the piano and dance a little. "They were looking for someone who was going for the right reason. And they were looking for someone who could travel on a cargo plane and wake up and give a show at 2 or 3 a.m."
Lowden, a still-trim blonde with gray streaks, once was reluctant to talk about her pageant period.
"I used to be embarrassed, thinking people would think I'm not serious, but it paid for my college education" with scholarships, says Lowden, who earned a bachelor's degree in education from American University in Washington, D.C., and a master's from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, N.J.
While pursuing her master's, Lowden taught kindergarten for two years in Edgewater, N.J.
At the time, women were just breaking into big-time broadcasting: Jane Pauley on the "Today" show and 1971 Miss America Phyllis George on CBS Sports.
"I met her," Lowden said of George, citing her and Pauley as inspirations for her next move, interning at a TV station, which led to a job with a CBS affiliate in Las Vegas, KLAS-TV, Channel 8.
"I took a real risk. I changed careers. I took a chance," says Lowden, who got the job in 1978 for $13,500 a year. "I felt I had to change, to do something, and so I did it. I was fascinated by journalism."
But she was green and barely trained. On her first story, a bank robbery on the Strip, her cameraman had to tell her what to do when interviewing an FBI agent.
"My cameraman said just stick the microphone in front of him and say, 'What happened?' and so I did what he told me," she says, demonstrating.
She was a TV reporter and then anchorwoman for 10 years until 1987. She also helped host the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon and was a founding member of Nevada Child Seekers.
Lowden quit TV after getting married and having children. Paul Lowden had two kids, a boy and girl, and together they had two sons. She also wanted to help her husband's business. He owned the Sahara and Hacienda, and they later built the Santa Fe, all of which they have sold. The couple, worth about $50 million, remain majority owners in the Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall in Laughlin.
"I worked nights. I worked holidays. I put a lot of time into it," Lowden says of her broadcast career. "My husband said, 'I wish you would work that hard for our growing company.' As old-fashioned as that is, I really loved that he wanted me to work for the company with him."
And then came politics.
"I ran out of a sense of passion," says Lowden, who didn't think the right man was in the job.
Her first campaign was tough. In 1992, she won a heavily Democratic district by defeating Jack Vergiels, then the state Senate majority leader.
Her second campaign was tougher. She lost re-election in 1996 to Valerie Wiener, partly because the powerful Culinary union targeted Lowden, the swing vote on keeping Nevada a right-to-work state.
"They picketed in front of my house," Lowden says of the unions, whose members have complained the Lowdens have fought efforts by unions to organize at their casinos.
After a stint as the chairwoman of the state GOP, Lowden decided to jump into the Reid race when Republican pollsters last summer saw the U.S. Senate majority leader as vulnerable -- and that the former state senator could beat him. (The early polling didn't test the name of Danny Tarkanian, the former UNLV basketball star and Lowden's closest GOP primary opponent, because he wasn't yet on the Republican radar.)
So now Lowden is back on the campaign trail, reintroducing herself to Nevadans.
"I think they don't know that I come from humble beginnings," she says.
Her grandparents worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania after they immigrated from Lithuania, she says, then moved to Camden, N.J., and worked in the New York shipyards during the war.
Her mother worked in a factory, and her parents divorced when she was 10 years old. Asked about her father, Lowden's face hardens, the wall goes up.
"My mother remarried when I was 15. I consider him my father," she says.
Times were tough when her mother was raising her alone, says Lowden, an only child.
"You don't know what it's like to have your teeth drilled without novocaine, but that's what you do because novocaine costs more money," she says.
Lowden's mother helped raise her children during the past two decades, coming with her to Carson City and then to Las Vegas as well.
"I couldn't do it without her," Lowden says.
Her parents now live in Florida, and all the children are grown, including 44-year-old Chris -- a cancer survivor -- 42-year-old Jennifer and Paul IV, who will be 26 in late January.
"Will would have been 23," she says of her youngest. "He passed away six years ago."
How did he die?
"He choked at a friend's house," Lowden says after a long pause.
Does she know the exact cause? She shakes her head, her face clouds with grief as the bus travels through the cold night rain. "He had a drug and alcohol problem. He was doing well. He was in rehab. He was doing so well."
Lowden recovers, sits up straighter and lifts her chin.
"I don't shy away from talking about it because we need to talk about it," she says, although Lowden can't yet bring herself to get involved in anti-drug and anti-alcohol programs or meet the people who received her son's donated organs, including two kidney recipients in Las Vegas.
"I'm not ready," she says. "It's too close."
The bus is silent except for the splashing rain. Then Paul Lowden speaks up.
"He was gifted," he says of their son, who played bass and jammed in public and private with his father, a keyboard player and jazz musician turned casino entrepreneur.
"I started playing again because of him," Paul Lowden smiles. "I got back into it because of him."
William Lowden attended the Las Vegas Academy, a magnet school for the performing arts, "like 'Fame.' You know the movie 'Fame,'" Paul Lowden explains.
"They played every day at home," Sue Lowden says.
"You're born with it -- talent," Paul Lowden says. Like father, like son. "He had it, and I had it, too."
At first blush, it might not seem the Lowdens have much in common, the glamorous former TV personality and the rough-and-tumble jazz man and gamer, but their East Coast accents give them away -- she of Jersey and he of Delaware, born in December 1943, making him 67. She'll be 58 in February.
They like to tell the story of how they met.
"She don't know me from a load a coal. I see her on TV, but she can't see me," Paul Lowden says. "I noticed her accent."
"I don't sound that bad," Sue Lowden objects when he mocks her drawn-out vowels.
He made a cold call to the TV station. She answered her own phone. He asked whether she was from New Jersey or Philly. They talked and discovered they had both worked summers at Wildwood, N.J., a resort town, she as a waitress and he playing keyboard at places that served alcohol.
"We lived six blocks from each other," Sue Lowden says of the town where jazz greats such as Fats Domino and Miles Davis played. "I couldn't wait to meet him. He was somebody from home."
Their first date was a "safe" lunch, she says. Eight months later they married in March 1983.
SHARING HER IDEAS WITH VOTERS
Now, Paul Lowden stays in the background while Sue Lowden shakes hands and chats up voters as she does the other morning at American Legion Post No. 60 in Laughlin.
About 70 people show up at 7:30 a.m. for a cinnamon bun and coffee breakfast, most of them white-haired and worried about Medicare and veterans benefits.
"We are starting our world tour, and we are starting it right here," Sue Lowden says.
She reminds them the Lowdens are majority shareholders in the Pioneer, and that her son Paul works there, and her son Chris used to work there, too: "It's good to be home."
She gives a short version of her anti-Washington, anti-taxes stump speech, and reminds people that she understands it's tough to run a business and make ends meet.
"I know what it's like to make payroll," she says. "I have legislative experience, but it's not like I'm a professional politician. I'm not."
She says she would be different than Reid and would not have voted for President Barack Obama's federal stimulus package, but instead would have pushed to cut payroll and corporate taxes to put more money directly into the pockets of people and businesses.
"That would be not fake stimulus but real stimulus, putting money in your pocket, and you stimulate the economy any way you want," Lowden explains, saying that could lead to job creation.
At the same time, she attacks Reid for claiming to be the most powerful senator and yet not doing more to make sure Nevada gets its "fair share" of the $787 billion stimulus package. Instead, Nevada ranks 50th in per capita stimulus funding with access to about $1.5 billion.
She also plays to the home crowd, noting she's a proponent of "home rule," which would let areas of Clark County such as Laughlin incorporate to keep and spend its tax dollars as locals like.
Home rule is a big applause line in rural Nevada, and it gets a round in Laughlin, too.
"I've been here before and I'll be back again," Lowden promises before taking questions.
Most of the crowds at Lowden's stops are Republicans, called and invited by the campaign to meet her, but she's also drawing some conservative Democrats and independents.
Ross Reimer, 63, moved to Laughlin seven years ago from Newport Beach, Calif. A Democrat, he voted for Reid in 2004. This time, he says he'll vote Republican and back Lowden.
"I'm a Harry Truman Democrat, a conservative," he says. "The party has left us, and there's nowhere to go. I voted for Reid before, but I can't anymore. He don't represent Nevada anymore."
Reid made a stop in Laughlin a couple weeks before Lowden, dedicating a transportation center after helping secure $1 million to complete construction.
Reimer went to see him. "I see them all," he says, but it didn't change his mind.
An hour up the road, Lowden's tour is a bit of a bust in Searchlight.
Less than a dozen elderly voters show up to meet her at a senior citizens center, where a framed document on the wall lists Reid's mother, Inez, as one of its founding charter members in 1978-79.
And most sandwiches go uneaten at the next stop, a "meet and greet" lunch at the Searchlight Nugget Casino, where less than a dozen people come to see Lowden. Most oppose a proposed wind power project they believe will hurt the environment and send power to California.
"I'm leaning toward Sue," says Judy Bundorf, 66. "Tarkanian -- his name is known but his politics and policies are unknown. I want to meet him, but I prefer someone with a known record."
What about Sharron Angle, a former Reno assemblywoman with rock-hard conservative credentials?
"She'll probably carry the cow counties, but she won't have a good showing in Clark County," says Bundorf, who like many anti-Reid voters are making careful calculations about who could beat him.
On the way out of town, the Lowden entourage stages a photo-op for a Las Vegas TV camera crew, posing outside the gates of Reid's home on a sagebrush covered hill. It's a made-for-TV moment, a false note designed for the "air game" campaigns play to win voters in urban Washoe and Clark counties, where pricey political ads flood the airways as Election Day nears.
Lowden also does local newspaper, radio and TV interviews, adjusting her makeup and making jokes about crow's feet around her eyes.
"Pick a nice photo," she tells a photographer.
Rural Nevada is a ground game where candidates win votes one by one, face to face.
"There's nothing more powerful than sitting across from them," says Lowden's pollster, Todd Vitale.
"You're still wet clay to them, but they have a general positive view of you now," he tells her.
If he were Reid's adviser what strategy would he use to save his seat?
"I would do what Reid did, say you'll 'vaporize' your opponent," Vitale says, referring to an anonymous quote from a Reid adviser. "I need to destroy my opponent."
On the trail, Lowden makes light of the threat, saying: "You know what I told him when he said he would vaporize me? Start on my hips."
HOPING TO MATCH MASSACHUSETTS
Lowden's hulking RV braves Blue Diamond Road on a snowy evening to reach Pahrump. Excitement grows as special election returns come in for Massachusetts. The late Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat was considered a safe Democrat bet until Republican Scott Brown shook up the political landscape by stealing victory. The Lowden camp wants to repeat the David versus Goliath story.
Inside Wulfy's Sports Lounge in Pahrump, Lowden wades through a boisterous crowd of more than 120 people, mostly loyal Republicans and early supporters leaning her way if not already decided. She goes from table to table as folks feed on aluminum trays full of fried chicken and onion rings, plates of pepperoni pizza and a live big-screen TV stream from Massachusetts that fires up the room.
"We started in Massachusetts tonight, and we're going to finish in November by defeating Harry Reid,'' Lowden yells before being helped up onto a chair so she can be heard over the din.
A man delivers a wolf whistle, and Lowden smiles and thanks him.
"I know you're looking me up and down," she says. "I'm in it to win it."
Outside the lounge, Lowden makes herself a cup of hot tea with lemon to soothe her throat.
"I think this is a clear message that people are fed up," she says of Massachusetts. Also, "Harry Reid can be defeated, I think that's the message."
How can she keep up the pace to get past a GOP primary field that's nearing a dozen?
"This is not a sprint. This is a marathon," she says. "People are handing me checks. Anything can happen. I wouldn't miss this for the world."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.