Somebody forgot to tell Republican voters that Gov. Jim Gibbons' re-election bid is gaining momentum.
The embattled incumbent trails challenger Brian Sandoval by 18 percentage points with less than four weeks until the primary election, according to a statewide poll of likely primary voters.
The survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research shows Gibbons losing ground to Sandoval since a similar poll published April 10 indicated a 14 percentage point gap between the two. Former North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon remains a distant third.
The winner of the Republican primary probably will face Democrat Rory Reid, chairman of the Clark County Commission, in the general election.
A recent flurry of aggressive activity from Gibbons' campaign and perceived mistakes by Sandoval had prompted speculation Gibbons would close the gap in the primary.
Two straw polls taken at recent GOP events in Northern Nevada showing Sandoval behind Gibbons and Montandon contributed to the speculation.
The latest Mason-Dixon results, commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, contradict any suggestion of a Gibbons surge or Sandoval flameout.
"I'm not surprised because I've polled Gibbons now for over four years," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon. "His numbers just don't seem to get that much better."
Sandoval was the choice of 45 percent of respondents who were asked to pick one of five Republican gubernatorial candidates they would vote for "if the election were held today."
Gibbons was the favorite of 27 percent of respondents, followed by Montandon at 6 percent and Tony Atwood at 1 percent.
The poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points, generated responses from 500 people.
The results show Republican voters have yet to be swayed by a Democratic-led campaign against Sandoval that accuses the former federal judge of changing his stance on issues such as immigration, taxes and rights for same-sex couples.
The campaign by the Committee to Protect Nevada Jobs -- an independent group organized by longtime Reid consultant Dan Hart and funded in large part by $500,000 from the Democratic Governors Association -- accuses Sandoval of advocating for tax increases in the past and being supportive of allowing illegal immigrants to acquire driver's licenses.
Sandoval has said the charges are lies. So far the attacks don't appear to have hurt his poll numbers or helped Gibbons, who Democrats view as more likely to lose to Reid.
"Likability is trumping some of those flip-flops," said Robert Olmer, Gibbons' former campaign manager, said of Sandoval's numbers in the face of attacks against him.
Nor do voters appear to have noticed that Gibbons in recent months has begun to campaign for re-election more heavily and taken high-profile stances on issues such as health care and transparency in government.
Gibbons' decision to hire outside counsel to file a lawsuit to block the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from taking effect was in line with Nevada Republican voters' dislike of the new health care overhaul law but didn't seem to help him win support.
"In many ways, from a campaign issue, he's doing exactly what people in the state, the majority of the people in the state want him to do," Olmer said. "They like the message, but I think they have issues with the messenger."
Coker said Gibbons is likely hurt not only by controversies during his first term but an anti-incumbent fervor that is influencing high-profile campaigns in Florida, Utah, Arizona, Arkansas and elsewhere.
"The trend right now is anti-incumbent, even in primaries, especially Republican primaries," Coker said.
Ron Bath, Gibbons' friend and interim campaign manager, had little to say about the results.
"The only poll I'm concerned about is the poll that takes place on the eighth of June," Bath said.
In a written response, Sandoval said only, "We continue to be encouraged by the numbers, but are going to work very hard all the way through election day."
Bryon Geddes, Montandon's campaign manager, said that as primary voting focuses voters' attention more closely, they will flock to Montandon.
"As voters pay more attention to the campaign, they will become dissatisfied with the governor's antics and Brian Sandoval's liberal positions," Geddes said.
If Gibbons cannot come back, he would be the first incumbent governor in Nevada history to lose his party's primary.
The most recent incumbent governor to lose a re-election bid was Robert List in 1982. But List lost the general election in November after he already had submitted a budget.
If Gibbons were to lose the primary, he would be in for the longest involuntary lame duck tenure of any governor, a seven-month period that would challenge him to overcome any disappointment to craft a budget and tend to other important tasks.
"It matters because it comes down to how he handles it," historian Guy Rocha said. "The people he is working with are all going to know he is done."
Poll results suggest Gibbons is having difficulty appealing to all but a narrow group of core voters who share his conservative views and are not troubled by reports on his tumultuous personal life -- which includes an ongoing divorce with allegations of infidelity -- and widespread criticism of his governing style, which Republicans and Democrats have described as aloof.
"Stagnant makes sense," said Republican consultant Ryan Erwin of Gibbons' position relative to Sandoval. "So many voters already have solidified their opinion of him."
The poll does show some shift in how Republicans view Gibbons, notably in the form of fewer voters with a neutral opinion.
Among respondents, 33 percent reported a favorable view of Gibbons, 41 percent unfavorable, 25 percent neutral and 1 percent didn't recognize him.
In April, 21 percent reported a favorable view, 27 percent unfavorable, 51 percent neutral, and 1 percent didn't recognize him.
Sandoval's favorable rating also changed, with a 10 percentage point increase in recognition.
In the latest poll, 43 percent of respondents reported a favorable view of Sandoval, 13 percent unfavorable, 39 percent neutral, and 5 percent didn't recognize him.
In April, 37 percent viewed Sandoval favorably, 8 percent unfavorably, 40 percent neutrally, and 15 percent didn't recognize him.
Although the numbers clearly favor Sandoval, his advancing to the general election isn't a certainty.
Early voting begins May 22, and the Committee to Protect Nevada jobs will continue running ads aimed at Republican voters portraying Sandoval as indecisive.
Jim Ferrence, a Democratic political consultant who isn't affiliated with the group behind the ads, said he expects the ads will increase in frequency as voters preparing to cast ballots will be paying closer attention.
"The week of the 17th is really the crucial week; I would venture to guess they are ramping it up," Ferrence said.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861.