The historic Caughlin Ranch House in Reno, where Brian Sandoval celebrated his win over Gov. Jim Gibbons in the Republican gubernatorial primary, was a far cry from the hard, dusty patch of land in Searchlight where two months ago both candidates sought votes among hard-line Tea Party conservatives.
The Reno house, with its white columns and windows adorned with bunting, complemented the mainstream tastes of the attendees, many of whom praised Sandoval for his reputation as a political moderate willing to sacrifice ideology for accomplishment.
"He is a dynamic young man," said state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, the elder statesman of the Nevada Legislature. "He has credibility across party lines."
The setting was nothing like the March 27 Showdown in Searchlight hosted by the Tea Party Express in the backyard of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. The raucous, freewheeling event in the desert featured conservative hard-line headliner Sarah Palin and others whose rhetoric spared nothing in the name of civility.
If Sandoval is to win his general election contest in November against Democrat Rory Reid, he will need to connect with traditional Republicans of Raggio's ilk and the insurgent faction of Tea Party Republicans, who on Tuesday helped conservative Sharron Angle win the party's nomination to challenge U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the father of Sandoval's gubernatorial opponent.
For Republican moderates such as Raggio, who recently was the target of an unsuccessful recall effort by Tea Party organizers, and former Gov. Kenny Guinn, Sandoval's candidacy is a chance for their wing of the party to regain influence they have recently lost as the Tea Party faction has grown in stature.
Sandoval, 46, has successfully moved between both worlds. His decision to step down from a lifetime appointment as a federal judge was followed by an influx of financial support from sources cozy with the Republican establishment who were eager to abandon Gibbons for a candidate they thought would have broader appeal.
Sandoval fended off attacks from a Democratic-led political action committee seeking to paint him as a RINO -- Republican In Name Only -- in an effort to drive the conservative vote to Gibbons, a weaker candidate.
In doing so, Sandoval managed to win the Republican primary by 29 percentage points over Gibbons.
Former Gov. Bob List, now a Republican national committeeman, said primary voters understood the importance of holding the seat for the Republican Party.
During the primary campaign, Sandoval matched Gibbons' anti-tax rhetoric with tough talk of his own, including repeated promises that he would not raise taxes to balance a state budget that could be $3 billion or more in the red by the time the next governor takes office.
But he stopped short of signing his name to an anti-tax pledge, a campaign step primary opponents Gibbons and former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon used to enhance their conservative bonafides.
"At least he hasn't tied his hands. He hasn't signed a no-tax pledge," Raggio said.
Sandoval also supported a controversial Arizona law that requires police officers to ask for proof of legal status whenever they have a "reasonable suspicion" that someone they have stopped for some other purpose is an illegal alien.
Critics have said the law will prompt police to target Hispanics unjustly to root out illegal immigrants. Supporters have said it is a reasonable response from state officials fed up with a lack of coherent immigration policies from the federal government.
Sandoval, who was Nevada's first Hispanic attorney general and now the first Hispanic major-party gubernatorial nominee, has said his support for the law is based on the federal government's failure to deal with the issue and a provision in the law that prohibits racial profiling.
The law is supported by 85 percent of Nevada Republicans, according to a recent statewide poll.
On election night, Sandoval stood by his support of the Arizona law but stopped short of endorsing a similar statute for Nevada.
"What may be good for Arizona may not be for Nevada," he said.
Debbie Landis of the Tea Party group Action is Brewing said hard-core conservative voters will back Sandoval, even if they are disappointed that neither Gibbons nor Montandon emerged from the primary.
"He was not our pick," said Landis, whose group endorsed Gibbons. "But he is the conservative in the running to represent us."
Landis said purist conservatives will vote for Sandoval despite his connections to Raggio, Guinn and other so-called establishment Republicans.
"We're smart enough to band together and move forward in a healthy direction regardless of what we have to work with," she said.
It is more important today for Sandoval to win over centrists than it was in 2006 for Gibbons, who hewed to hard line anti-tax rhetoric to defeat Democrat Dina Titus.
Back then there were 409,878 active registered Republican voters and 404,850 Democrats: a 5,028-vote advantage for Republicans. Today there are 392,405 Republicans and 452,950 Democrats, a difference of 60,545 in favor of Reid's party.
The number of registered nonpartisan voters also has increased in that time: from 147,648 to 162,173.
Rory Reid, however, isn't going to stand by and allow Sandoval's rightward push during the primary to go unnoticed by general election voters.
He is going hard after Sandoval -- the leader in statewide opinion polls -- by reminding voters how Sandoval's positions aligned so closely with Gibbons'.
Reid's initial attack, which he launched hours after the primary results were tallied, focused on education and sought to paint Sandoval as willing to put his conservative ideology ahead of improving the state's schools.
"We need to have a different kind of debate in this state, not the kind that we had in '06," Reid said. "Not the kind that led to Jim Gibbons."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at email@example.com or 702-477-3861.