Dina Titus' entry Thursday into the race to represent urban Las Vegas in Congress sets up a hotly competitive primary between a former lawmaker with decades of experience and a rising Latino legislator, Ruben Kihuen, with deep support among Hispanics.
The Democratic campaign for the 1st Congressional District got off to a sharp start Thursday as the two opponents had separate events just several hours and seven miles apart.
Titus laid out her accomplishments in front of 75 cheering supporters, using the backdrop of an affordable housing complex for the disabled that was named for her because of her advocacy. Kihuen touted a dozen endorsements from Hispanic leaders at the Latin Chamber of Commerce.
Both are competing for U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley's district, redrawn to make it more Hispanic and more Democratic, according to preliminary maps. That means the winner of the 2012 primary is all but guaranteed to win the safe seat in November's general election, raising the stakes of the open race.
Berkley, D-Nev., is running for the Senate against U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Former U.S. Rep. Titus, 61, said she is the natural successor to Berkley. Titus moved to the district 34 years ago and has worked there since, including representing voters as a state senator for 20 years. Previously, she represented the 3rd Congressional District next door but lost to U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., in 2010.
She ticked off accomplishments, from capping Nevada property taxes to supporting health care and Wall Street reform in Congress.
"District 1 needs someone with a proven record," Titus said, setting up a contrast between herself and Kihuen without naming him. "They want someone they can count on, someone who's been there for them the whole time, not just somebody with some empty promises and some vague ideas."
Kihuen, 31, has been a state senator since winning election in 2010. Previously, he served two terms in the state Assembly, where he was popular yet not known for tackling major issues.
He defended his record, noting that this year he chaired the Senate Select Committee on Economic Growth and Employment. The panel explored ways to create jobs and diversify Nevada's gaming and tourism economy as the state suffers the nation's highest unemployment rate, 13.4 percent.
"Latino issues are everyone else's issues," said Kihuen, adding that as a Mexican immigrant he lived through the same struggles as other families trying to stay in their houses and find jobs. "I understand the needs of the people. ... When I get to Washington, D.C., I will not forget about them."
Kihuen and his backers all said they want him to become Nevada's first Hispanic congressman, representing a district -- where he grew up -- that is 43 percent Latino. The Hispanic voting population, however, is subject to debate: Titus put it at about 20 percent, and Kihuen said it's about 30 percent.
The party breakdown of the district is 52 percent Democratic to 25 percent Republican.
Although Kihuen is running as a Hispanic candidate, he said he knows he must broaden his base to win and wants to prove to voters he can be the best representative not just the best Latino.
"I'm not going to be the Latino candidate," he said. "I'm going to be the everybody's candidate."
The sharpest long-distance exchange between the foes focused on the Dream Act, which would let children of illegal immigrants attend college and get permanent residency status.
Asked what differences he had with Titus, Kihuen cited comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act. He criticized Titus for not co-sponsoring the Dream Act despite requests from Latinos.
"We had to pressure her to vote for the Dream Act," Kihuen said, adding that if he were elected, he would co-sponsor the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform.
Titus rejected Kihuen's portrayal, calling it "ridiculous." She said that for years she has publicly advocated for the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform, including during her 2008 and 2010 congressional campaigns. She said she voted for the act as an amendment to another bill as Democrats failed in a last-minute bid to push the legislation out of Congress near the end of 2010.
"I have been out front in supporting the Dream Act and supporting comprehensive immigration reform," Titus said in an interview. "That's ridiculous to say I didn't. I supported it. I spoke for it. I was all in. ... If they wanted me to co-sponsor it, I could have co-sponsored it."
Some of Kihuen's supporters appealed to Titus to run again in the 3rd Congressional District.
Vicenta Montoya, head of the Si Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus, said she had backed Titus in every campaign before but in 2012 wants to see Kihuen give Nevada Hispanics their first seat in Congress. She said she had worked since the 1950s to achieve that goal.
"Does Ruben's personal story trump Dina's experience? Absolutely," Montoya said.
Otto Merida, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce, can't vote for Kihuen in the primary because he is a registered Republican. But Merida said he will work to help elect Kihuen to boost the growing political power of Hispanics in Nevada, where they are 26 percent of the population.
"For us, Ruben is our American dream," Merida said.
Titus had said she would stay in the 1st Congressional District race, although some Democrats in Washington reportedly had been trying to persuade her to go for a rematch against Heck instead.
"I didn't draw these lines," Titus said. "This is where I live. I am in the heart of CD1."
Titus has plenty of backing behind her as well, especially among pro-choice and gay rights groups, women's organizations such as Emily's List, some unions and Democratic leaders in Congress.
U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the No. 2 Democrat in the House, visited Las Vegas over the summer to endorse Titus before the new districts were drawn. Hoyer also is among Democratic leaders who have donated to her campaign, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In the money race, Titus has a head start over Kihuen, raising more than $200,000 during the most recent quarter to his $100,000. Both had most of that as cash on hand as well.
Titus said she was running for Congress again because she "can't stand on the sidelines" while some in Washington try to put a greater tax burden on the struggling middle class. She declared she wanted "to turn this economy around and create jobs for people in Southern Nevada."
Several Democratic Party leaders attended her news conference at the Dina Titus Estates, although they said they were staying neutral in the race. African-American and Asian leaders also populated the crowd, which included some wheelchair-bound residents of the complex.
Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani endorsed Titus as did Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin, a Hispanic. Coffin said Titus has long supported the Latino community.
"You never let us down," Coffin yelled out at one point.
"Hispanics are not monolithic," Coffin said in an interview. "I've supported Ruben before. I helped him win my old Senate seat. But I think Dina will do the best job."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.