Former lawmaker Joe Heck to run for governor in 2010

Republican former state Sen. Joe Heck announced his plans to challenge Gov. Jim Gibbons for the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nomination on Monday, as resistance in his own party to the unpopular governor continues to intensify.

"The state needs to go in a new direction, and we're going to offer that," said Heck, 47. "We need forward-thinking, strategic leadership to tackle not only today's problems for tomorrow, but long-term in the years ahead."

Gibbons' leadership, he said, "hasn't seemed to generate any results. He's doing the best he can with the circumstances he's been dealt, but I think I have a much more deliberative process. My training and background, both personal and political, have taught me to be a more analytical thinker."

Heck, a Henderson physician and Army reservist, is the second Republican to jump into the race against Gibbons. North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon also has said he plans to enter the primary field.

Elected governor in 2006, Gibbons gets low marks in public opinion polls but has not wavered from his vow to run for re-election. A January poll commissioned by the Reno Gazette-Journal found 69 percent of Nevadans disapproved of Gibbons' performance, while only 25 percent approved.

To test the waters, Heck recently toured the state's rural counties speaking to local Republican parties at their annual Lincoln Day dinners. He said Monday that he liked what he heard and secured about $500,000 in financial commitments.

"It was apparent that in the rural counties and the smaller cities, everybody's looking for a new direction," he said. But Heck said he recognized he was in for a tough race: "I wouldn't get into the race if I wasn't going to fight hard."

Heck has a track record in Republican primaries. In 2004, he defeated then-Sen. Ann O'Connell for the GOP nomination in state Senate District 5.

He has declined to sign the pledge not to support tax increases circulated by a Washington, D.C. group, Americans for Tax Reform, saying voters elect politicians to make the right decision based on the circumstances. Asked about the budget crisis facing the Legislature, Heck said he did not want to "second guess" the actions of lawmakers and the governor, but noted that as a legislator he had called for better planning.

"Throughout this entire economic downturn, I always called for a more deliberative process, as opposed to across the board cuts in order to get in and get out -- making cuts for political expediency, as opposed to truly evaluating the magnitude and necessity of the cuts."

A true vision for the state would have to incorporate not just taxes but "the issues I concentrated on as a senator: quality and accountable education, health care, and economic diversification. I don't think we can attain that last one, which is long-term key to success, if we don't do the first two. Companies aren't going to move here just because we have a good tax climate. They're concerned about whether their children will be able to get a good education and whether they will have access to health care."

Over the course of his four-year Senate term, Heck served on the Commerce and Labor, Health and Human Services, Natural Resources, and Transportation and Homeland Security committees.

Heck works as an emergency room doctor and owns a medical consulting business. A colonel in the Army Reserve, he was deployed to Iraq for three months last year. He and his wife Lisa, a nurse, have three children. Born in New York, Heck moved to Nevada in 1992.

Last year, Heck lost the election to Democrat Shirley Breeden by a 765-vote margin, less than 1 percentage point. Breeden, a first-time candidate, was widely criticized for not taking policy positions or seeming to understand the issues, but a Democratic wave on behalf of Barack Obama combined with a well-funded barrage of nasty ads slamming Heck combined to torpedo his re-election.

Despite his loss, Heck is seen as one of Nevada Republicans' brightest up-and-coming prospects.

The fact that two well-credentialed challengers have stepped up is a clear message to Gibbons that his party is no longer willing to stand behind him, said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Usually, parties tend to stand behind their incumbents in reelection battles. But whether they are members of the hard-core conservative base or more moderate Republicans, the majority of the governor's party has concluded that he is a liability, Herzik said.

"He's survived most of the scandals, but he's fumbled basic administration," from questionable appointments to a budget that sounds only one note: "His solution is to cut, regardless of what that does to the state."

For many Republicans not turned off by Gibbons' numerous missteps or messy divorce, his decision last week not to sign the hotel room tax increase passed by the Legislature was the last straw, Herzik said. Gibbons had included the tax hike in his proposed budget.

By neither vetoing it nor signing it, allowing it to automatically become law, Gibbons angered both anti-tax conservatives who hoped he would reject it, and lawmakers who felt he'd gone back on his promise to support it.

"Whether they're moderates or conservatives, Republicans are saying, 'I can't trust this guy,'" Herzik said.

Like Montandon, Heck is not well known outside of Southern Nevada. While he is a good candidate on paper, he is perceived as a moderate and will have to make inroads with the party's conservative base, Herzik said.

From that perspective, the recent rural tour, during which Heck also made financial contributions to rural Republican organizations, was a shrewd move. "He's trying to undercut Gibbons with his base," Herzik said.

With a potential three-way primary ahead, the risk for Republicans now is that Heck and Montandon split the anti-Gibbons vote, allowing Gibbons to ride to the nomination on the strength of the hard core that still supports him and is most likely to vote in a midsummer primary. Most Republicans believe Gibbons would be pummeled in a general election by virtually any Democratic candidate.

Rory Reid, the chairman of the Clark County Commission, and Barbara Buckley, the speaker of the state Assembly, have been feeling out the race on the Democratic side of the ticket.

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@ or 702-387-2919.