Rep. Dean Heller's official entry Tuesday into the U.S. Senate race rolled out like a Republican coronation.
Within hours of Heller announcing his plans for 2012, Gov. Brian Sandoval endorsed the congressman, sending a strong signal to other potential GOP contenders to stay out of the race to replace disgraced Sen. John Ensign.
Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, a close friend of Heller's who could have become his strongest competitor, immediately took himself out of Senate consideration. Krolicki told Heller he would back him in a conversation Saturday night at an Elks Lodge crab dinner in Ely also attended by Sandoval.
Heller's announcement, widely expected and made in an e-mail to his supporters, starts the circling around seats, campaign 2012's version of musical chairs. Republicans are watching to see if anyone else dares to jump into the GOP Senate primary, while taking bets on how crowded the primary could become for Heller's seat.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Shelley Berkley continues to weigh her chances of successfully running for the Senate seat.
Heller, 50, said he is grateful for his party's encouragement but is taking nothing for granted. He realizes the national glare of a high stakes race will be harsher than when he won his safe GOP House seat three times. Before Congress, Heller served two terms in the state Assembly and three terms as secretary of state.
"This is a whole new ball game," Heller said, adding he's ready: "There is nothing that can catch me off-guard."
At this point, the wild card remains Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite who in 2010 lost a bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the Senate. Angle's advisers said she is thinking about the Senate race but is more likely to bid for Heller's open seat, which she barely lost in 2006.
"I don't think you're going to see people jumping into that primary with Dean," said Heidi Smith, national GOP committeewoman in Reno. "But you've got everybody looking at Heller's seat, even people who you haven't heard from in a year. And of course Sharron has always said she's interested in that seat."
Heller said he didn't know whether Angle would use her national fundraising network to challenge him, but he is preparing for a contested primary. Heller said he had set aside $3 million to compete against Ensign, who announced last week he wouldn't seek re-election in the face of his downfall over an extramarital affair.
Heller said he plans aggressive fundraising to add to almost $900,000 already in his campaign account, shooting to bring in between $12 million and $15 million. The Sands' Sheldon Adelson is among those headlining a March 28 fundraiser.
'IN GOOD SHAPE'
Heller said an internal poll showed him "in good shape" to beat Angle if she ran. Even Angle's own advisers acknowledge that she was damaged so much in 2010 that her base of support has shrunk to less than 30 percent in a primary electorate. In a multicandidate field, however, she would have a chance of winning if other candidates split the vote.
Asked how he would run against her, Heller said, "A better question is how would she run against me, because I don't know what her constituency base would be based on the voting record I have in the House."
Heller said he has stood for "lower taxes, smaller government, reasonable regulations, free markets and capitalism," and that he could be even more effective in the Senate.
Popular in Northern Nevada, Heller acknowledged he will need to win over vote-rich Clark County where he is less known.
"My name ID in Las Vegas is probably not as good as it is in the north, so I have my work cut out for me," Heller said, although he noted that his huge 2nd Congressional District reaches into parts of Clark County.
As for Democrats, if Berkley doesn't get into the Senate race, party officials are looking at Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who seems eager, or Secretary of State Ross Miller, who is not.
Las Vegas businessman Byron Georgiou is the only announced Democratic candidate, but he has no party backing.
Within hours of Heller's Senate announcement, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee posted a Web ad highlighting his vote on Feb. 19 in favor of a Republican bill cutting $61 billion in federal spending. Democrats say the budget cuts will result in a loss of 6,000 jobs in Nevada, along with $30 million in job training funds.
The quick pre-primary endorsement from Sandoval, another man from up North, was highly unusual.
Heller "has proven to be a tireless advocate for new job creation, smaller government and honest, ethical public service," the governor said in a statement.
David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Sandoval's push for Heller suggested he is starting to take a leadership role in the state Republican Party, which has been foundering.
"At some point, somebody's going to have to lead the Republican Party in this state, so Sandoval is trying to step up," Damore said.
Damore said it will be interesting to see how involved Sandoval gets in the House races and in redistricting, which will determine the state's political future for a decade to come.
Reno Republican Sen. Greg Brower, appointed to finish Sen. Bill Raggio's term, is considering running for Heller's seat. Other contenders telling people they will likely jump into the fray include Mark Amodei, head of the Nevada Republican Party, and Kirk Lippold, commander of the USS Cole when it was bombed in 2000. Amodei ran in the crowded GOP Senate primary in 2010.
State Treasurer Kate Marshall, a Democrat, is considering vying for Heller's seat, according to sources, especially if the district is redrawn to be more competitive.
Krolicki said he will decide within weeks whether to pursue Heller's seat. He is expected to be the candidate to beat, given his high profile and experience as lieutenant governor and former state treasurer.
"Today is Dean's day," Krolicki said, adding he will consider his future after consulting with family members and others. "I told Dean that I will do everything within my power and skills to help him become the next U.S. senator."
Stephens Media Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report. Contact reporter Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919.