Danny Tarkanian ambles around a Big 5 Sporting Goods store in Las Vegas, carrying a new basketball for his 6-year-old daughter. It's a Sunday, a rare day of rest for Tarkanian, who's getting ready for the first extensive rural Nevada tour of his 2010 U.S. Senate campaign.
He's made the trek many times before, as a Republican candidate for secretary of state in a statewide race he lost in 2006 -- his second failure as a candidate.
This time, Tarkanian's entourage has grown. His wife, Amy, just had their fourth child, a boy named Jerry Jr. after his famous grandfather: "Tark the Shark," among the winningest coaches in college basketball.
Lois, his eldest named for his mother, is a campaign veteran, going door-to-door in a stroller with Tarkanian and his wife -- then pregnant with twins Ashley and Ava -- when he lost a state Senate race in 2004.
It's a family affair, this seemingly endless effort by Tarkanian to win public office, a goal he has relentlessly pursued since returning to Nevada in 2002 and something he has quietly considered since the 1980s Reagan Revolution inspired a generation of young GOP conservatives.
Amy and the kids know no other life.
Tarkanian knows no other way than to try, try again for a victory that would allow him, at age 48, to emerge from his famous father's shadow after a lifetime working at his side in basketball and business.
The former starting point guard at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas says he learns from his losses.
"I'm going to win this race. There's no doubt," says Tarkanian, sounding like the team captain he once was, delivering a pregame pep talk. "It's going to be a very vicious race. (Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid's not going to be easy to beat, but I'm a fighter. I proved it with that lawsuit. I didn't back down from his son, either."
That lawsuit. If it sounds personal, it is, or at least Tarkanian has made it personal.
The short story is this: Tarkanian's first political rival, Mike Schneider, won re-election to his state Senate seat after accusing Tarkanian during a debate and in campaign ads and fliers of setting up telemarketing companies that cheated senior citizens. Tarkanian was the lawyer for the companies but had no day-to-day involvement in operations, and says he wasn't aware of any illegal activity. In politics, however, an accusation made before Election Day can stick, whether true or not.
In the end, Tarkanian sued Schneider and won a defamation lawsuit and a $150,000 settlement -- but not until August 2009 after Harry Reid's son, Leif, a former assistant U.S. attorney involved in the telemarketing case, acknowledged as a key witness for the defense that Tarkanian wasn't part of the investigation.
Tarkanian believes the accusations hung over his 2006 bid for secretary of state, contributing to his loss. Tarkanian decided to run against Harry Reid in 2010 only after he was cleared, and he blames the senator for his legal troubles. He tells campaign crowds "Reid's opposition researcher" dug up the dirt, although Dick Cooper didn't work for Reid until the fall of 2009 and instead worked for Schneider in 2004.
"Danny's claim is absurd," Reid campaign manager Brandon Hall says.
Tarkanian the competitor says he's prepared for more such attacks in the Republican primary and if he faces the Democrat Reid in the general election in November.
"What else can they use against me?" Tarkanian asks. "Negative campaigning is part of the political process until the public decides they don't want this."
Amy Tarkanian is ready for the worst, knowing personal rumors and scandals involving Gov. Jim Gibbons and U.S. Sen. John Ensign, both conservative Republicans, have made voters question candidates' characters. Gibbons went through a messy divorce and is fighting assault allegations from another woman. Ensign admitted a sexual affair with a staffer and faces an ethics investigation.
"Because of the Gibbons and Ensign thing, people come up to me at every event and say, 'Can he keep it in his pants?'" says Amy Tarkanian, eyes wide as her husband winces at her blunt talk.
"Every morning you wake up to a war."
ON THE ROAD
It's 7:03 a.m., a crisp Thursday, when the family's 2004 Dodge Grand Caravan minivan leaves Tarkanian's home in an upscale, gated community for the four-day, 1,260-mile rural tour. First stop is Tonopah, then Hawthorne, Yerington, Minden, Fernley, Fallon, Lovelock, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Elko, Eureka, Ely and Pioche, then back to Las Vegas with a few ad hoc stops along the way.
"Dora the Explorer" plays on the DVD player for the girls, who are learning Spanish with the cartoon character. Lois and the twins, who will be 5 in March, sit in back, eyes fixed on a tiny TV screen. Amy settles in the middle with the baby, wedged amid baggage and boxes of formula. Tarkanian drives, pumps his own gasoline along the way and cleans out trash during a potty-stop and snack-filled campaign swing.
His close friend, Peter Zopolos, who manages family properties for Tarkanian's real estate business, rides in a follow-along vehicle along with the political director, Andrea Shearer, a 20-something organizer of volunteers across the state. The two share child-wrangling duties on the road, too, while Tarkanian meets and greets voters and his wife focuses on taking care of the baby.
This is the first time the children are missing classes to campaign -- nursery school for the twins and first grade for Lois, who attends private school. It's also the first trip for 33-year-old Amy since the baby was born, Dec. 17, the day before his father's birthday.
"We've really got to know the state while campaigning," says Danny Tarkanian, who cites rib cook-offs, cantaloupe festivals, balloon races and outdoor movies. "It's different than living in Southern Nevada," where he takes his children to kid-friendly resorts such as Mandalay Bay and Excalibur. "Last campaign I went to Ely 12 times, Elko 13 times. I spent a lot of time in rural Nevada, maybe too much."
Amy says, "If you've only been to Vegas you've never been to Nevada."
Lois has ridden in 20 parades and counting.
"If they're not in the parade they're so over it," Amy says of the girls, who hand out candy, campaign literature and volunteer sign-up sheets for fun.
In the GOP primary campaign, rural Nevada is important because older, conservative voters turn out more than in urban Las Vegas and Reno, although the populous Clark and Washoe counties account for four out of five Republican voters in the state.
On the trail, Tarkanian knows the drill. He plays to conservatives, invoking Reagan and focusing on constitutional principles, pro-gun and anti-abortion stances, cutting taxes and spending, and expanding development of traditional energy sources such as oil and coal while clean alternatives are explored.
He also brags that Glenn Beck of Fox News, a darling of far-right conservatives, called him a "tea party radical," and he mentions that "the Heaths" -- former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's parents and brother -- campaigned for him last year, and may do so again in 2010.
Tarkanian met Sally and Chuck Heath and their son, Chuck Jr., in 2008 when they stopped in Nevada to stump for GOP presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate Palin.
"I've been a Tarkanian fan for years," Chuck Heath told a local radio station in October. "It goes back to his dad chewing on that towel years ago when UNLV was a powerhouse."
Tarkanian said Palin and his dad hit it off, partly because the former Alaska governor was a junior college transfer and Jerry Tarkanian made his career out of developing such students into stars.
"For a guy who has been scrutinized by the media and attacked, he really felt for her. Dad got on TV to support Palin," says Tarkanian, who as a civil attorney helped defend his father against NCAA accusations of recruiting violations over the course of more than two decades.
"We're very close in the family and have always fought together," adds Tarkanian, who like his father gives off the guarded air of someone used to being on the defensive. But he says he went to law school not to defend his dad but because he saw it as a path to politics.
Asked why politics, Tarkanian cites former U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt, a family friend for whom he clerked in the 1980s, and ex-California Gov. George Deukmejian, an Armenian-American like the Tarkanians.
"Public service was something to aspire to get into. My dream growing up was to be a U.S. senator because of the example of Senator Laxalt," Tarkanian says.
"The other races were stepping stones," he says, referring to the state Senate and secretary of state elections that he lost -- which makes his U.S. Senate run a high-risk, high-reward political leap across the water.
Even his mother, the only Democrat in a family of conservatives, didn't see this coming.
"I never thought Danny would get into politics and I never encouraged him," Lois Tarkanian says. "I told him not to run. Politics is brutal, but he has courage and he's tough."
Asked if she would vote for him if he wins the GOP primary, Lois Tarkanian pauses at the thought of crossing political lines. The Las Vegas city councilwoman and former school board mainstay is a leading Democrat in Nevada. Reid has contributed to her campaigns, and she has supported him.
"Harry's been good to me," she says, then tells a story about a fellow Democrat asking her how she could even consider not supporting Reid. "He said, 'How could you do this?' And I said, 'Would you vote for your son?' And he said, 'I know what you mean.' So yes, I think I would vote for my son. I believe my son would be an excellent senator. He hasn't disappointed me."
FATHER AND SON
He hasn't disappointed his father, either, although he almost didn't play college ball for him.
Prestigious schools tried to recruit the young Tarkanian, including the University of Southern California and Princeton, but his father wanted him to stay in Nevada where they had lived since 1973. He advised him to go to the University of Nevada, Reno, and play for the new coach, Sonny Allen, because UNLV already had a couple good starting point guards and UNR was looking for fresh talent.
Car packed, Danny Tarkanian was ready to drive north when everything changed. Billy Allen suddenly decided not to attend Missouri and instead play point guard for his father at UNR.
"I called my dad in Hawaii," where he was on business, "and he told me not to go to UNR," Tarkanian recalls. "He told me to wait until he got home to figure this out."
So instead of playing at a big school, Tarkanian went to Dixie Junior College in Utah, about a two-hour drive north of Las Vegas, so he could start and not sit on the bench.
"I wanted a chance to compete," Tarkanian says of his freshman year. "If you don't have a chance to compete it's hard to put your heart and soul into it."
His mother was furious and his father was persona non grata for awhile at home.
That season was the worst UNLV had under coach Tarkanian. And so the next year his son came home, joining the Runnin' Rebels as the starting point guard in 1981 and winning 24 straight games in his sophomore year when the team was ranked No. 1 nationally.
After college, Tarkanian got a degree from the University of San Diego School of Law and was a practicing civil attorney for about eight years, although he didn't argue many cases in court.
In the mid-1990s, Tarkanian returned to basketball, becoming his father's assistant coach at Fresno State, where the NCAA continued its scrutiny of the Tarkanian program. The father and son returned to Nevada in 2002 after the elder Tarkanian retired.
"After I got married and moved back, I knew that I would run," Tarkanian says as if destiny called.
Amy says she likes being a "political wife" and is as dedicated to his career as he is.
"We met when I waited on him at Tahoe Joe's Steakhouse in Fresno, and I've been waiting on him ever since," jokes Amy, a former actress who tried her luck in Los Angeles for two years before marrying. Her experience in theater, TV and in beauty pageants prepared her well for the public spotlight.
"I love meeting a lot of people," she says. "Campaigns are kind of like bad beauty pageants. All these people are advising you how to talk, how to walk, what to say. And in the end it's a personality contest. You can work the hardest, harder than anyone, and you never know. You still might not win."
The Tarkanians have been working hard at making him voters' No. 1 choice instead of the perennial runner-up, the one left with the frozen, we'll get 'em next time smile.
"I can handle adversity," Tarkanian says. "Sports teaches you how to win with class and lose with dignity. After those attacks in the race with Schneider, the easy thing to do would be to say 'I'm not going to let people say these things about me and walk away from politics.' But because I've played sports, I'm going to come back stronger."
He celebrated his first election loss by buying his wife the minivan, aka campaign bus, for Christmas.
"I wasn't even 30 and I'm going to drive a soccer mom van?" Amy says were her first thoughts when she saw it decorated with a big red bow outside her house. "Now I love it."
The minivan tires leave a trail through fresh snow outside the Tonopah Convention Center.
Inside, Diana Perchetti, the center manager, is trying to warm up the place with a small space heater after the furnace conked out overnight.
"Is my staff here yet?" Tarkanian asks her.
"No, you're the first one," she says.
Indeed, the high-ceilinged center is empty, their voices echo off the walls and bounce over lined up metal chairs and tables where hot coffee is brewing.
Ashley wears a T-shirt that says, "VOTE FOR MY DADDY."
Lois climbs on stage and starts playing the piano. Then she stands at the microphone and begins reciting her first- grade class report on the 33rd president, Harry Truman. A Democrat. He confounded all predictions to win re-election in 1948, helped by his "Whistle Stop Tour" of rural America.
"He was born in 1884," she says as a few people trickle in, including a man in a cowboy hat.
"I'm done," Lois calls out after a few minutes, and four people present applaud her on cue.
The people, when they come and there are only a dozen, are mad -- angry at government for threatening their livelihoods -- mostly mining, ranching, military bases. They want to develop Yucca Mountain into a nuclear reprocessing facility, an idea Republican opponents of Reid are jumping on because he has stood in the way of government plans to make it into a nuclear waste repository. They want less government regulation of land and water rights. They want to stop bleeding jobs.
Tarkanian taps into their anger.
"I understand what the people in Nevada are going through right now," he says. "I've lived through prosperity. And I'm living through the struggle."
He tells them he wants the federal government, which owns more than 85 percent of Nevada, to release the land back to the state for private enterprise and development. Tarkanian says he'll fight to reduce red tape and rules, and he'll cut taxes and federal spending and put more money in people's pockets.
"My solution to the jobs problem is we need to go back to the private sector," he says.
Cindy Drake-Whitehead likes what she hears. She switched to the Republican Party so she could support Ron Paul, a Texas Republican and former presidential contender. She and her husband, a pharmacist, moved to Nevada three years ago. She's part of the tea party movement, a growing group of anti-big government voters who might become a force in the 2010 elections.
"Jimmy Carter gave us Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama is going to give us our next Reagan," she says, noting the conservative backlash that's sweeping the recession-battered country.
Tarkanian's midday "meet and greet" event ends after less than an hour. As he does at each stop, he thanks the people for coming and notes early polls show him beating Reid and show him a bit ahead of his top GOP rivals, including former state senator and businesswoman Sue Lowden, although the surveys really have the leading Republicans in a statistical tie because of the margin of error.
"I hope that you give me a chance," Tarkanian says.
His daughter Lois is more direct. "Vote for Danny. Don't vote for Harry Reid," she yells into the microphone as people leave.
There's time for a snowball fight with daddy outside before the Tarkanian clan hits the road.
Meantime, Diana Perchetti has decided to change her voter registration from Democrat to Republican. She fills out the application under the guidance of Tarkanian's political director.
"Can I put independent and still vote for him?" she asks, referring to Tarkanian.
"No," responds political director Andrea Shearer, shaking her head.
"OK, I guess I'm out of the closet," Perchetti says as she completes the paperwork.
A neighbor, Dean Otteson, who was in the audience, too, tips his cowboy hat to her.
"I knewed we'd get you one day," Otteson says and winks on his way out the door.
BUSINESS OWNERS COMPLAIN
The scene is replayed over and over during the rural tour. At some scheduled stops, only a dozen people show up. At others, there are up to 50, with the primary still four months away on June 8.
The anti-Washington cynicism about politics-as-usual is thick. Tarkanian tries to use that to his advantage, saying he's not an "establishment candidate," a sly reference to Lowden, who was president of the state Republican Party, and another GOP opponent, former Reno Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, whose conservative credentials are among the purest of the Republican lot.
The trail is populated by hard-to-please "constitutional conservatives," a brew of largely older, white, male voters tired of government intrusion and arguing for less federal government. Like strict churchgoers who cite the Bible chapter and verse, they know their articles and amendments.
At Round Table Pizza in Yerington, three constitutional purists eye Tarkanian warily and grill him.
"They're expanding the government into what's called socialism and communism," says 80-year-old Clifford Thompson, holding a dog-eared copy of the Constitution.
He's joined by his 60-year-old friend, Jim Dunlap, holding a book of the Federalist Papers.
Across from him is Tom Cartwright, 60, who has real-world worries. A former fire department employee, he hasn't worked for a few months and his house is in foreclosure.
"I'm a Democrat and these two are registered Republicans, but I'm fairly well independent," Cartwright says under his red-white-and-blue cap. He and his friends have attended a few tea party meetings and hope to launch a local group. "What we're trying to do is start a movement."
Tarkanian, who fights to be heard over pizza orders and the sounds of his children playing on an indoor gym, promises to fight wasteful spending if he goes to Washington.
"We have to eliminate all federal pork projects," he says, arguing that if Florida wants to build a bridge to protect turtles from getting hit by cars, people in Nevada shouldn't pay for it.
As he meets voters, Tarkanian collects personal stories and takes their names and numbers so he can contact them to help his campaign and maybe to appear in ads.
There's the man from Pahrump he meets outside a gas station and food store. He complains about excess regulation and paperwork, saying it will take him a year to get a mining permit and another seven years to fully develop his project, which he says could create 300 jobs.
And there's Bill and Joni Bijo, owners of Bijo's Family Store and Emporium in Hawthorne, who tell Tarkanian they may go out of business in six months if they don't get a $17,000 loan.
"We're not looking to become millionaires. We're just looking for survival," he tells Tarkanian.
Tarkanian fumes at government bailouts for big banks and other industries.
"We loan banks money through TARP, but people who need the money to save their small business can't get it," he says, referring to the Troubled Asset Relief Program. "Something is wrong."
Sometimes he's a showman, using GOP gimmicks to rally conservatives, telling a story about Reagan coming to Nevada in 1986 to oppose the "tax-and-spend liberal Reid," and urging them to vote for him this year to "win one more for the Gipper."
Lois plays her part, asking to tell a joke. He lifts her up and plays the straight man.
Tarkanian: "How long does it take Harry Reid to change a light bulb?"
Lois: "It doesn't matter because he will never see the light. If he can't see the light we'll show him the door."
It's a guaranteed applause line at these rural Nevada stops where Republican lists and Tarkanian contacts are often used to generate invitations, although anyone can show up at the public events.
Tarkanian makes cold calls, too, dropping in on businesses and government offices unannounced.
"I'm Danny Tarkanian. I'm a candidate for the U.S. Senate. I hope I'm not disturbing you. I hope you'll support me in my race," he says, holding out his hand at the Nye County administration building.
In Hawthorne, he pops into a Thai restaurant, a flower shop and a store whose shelves boast an eclectic display of goods from pet clippers and cake decorators to Mylar balloons and baby clothes. "I thought he was selling something," one customer whispers to another after he leaves.
In Mina, the Tarkanians stop at one of their favorite greasy food joints: Socorro's Burger Hut run by a former brothel cook, a Republican, and her husband, a Democrat. Socorro Streight voted for Tarkanian for secretary of state in 2006 "because he stops here," she says, but she also voted for President Barack Obama in 2008. For her and many independent-minded voters politics is more personal than policy. Who will she vote for in the GOP primary, Tarkanian or one of his opponents?
"Whoever buys more burgers from me," she laughs, flipping hand-made patties on a grill inside the drive-through restaurant that advertises "not fast food."
"I won't vote for Harry Reid," she adds, turning her nose up at incumbents. "I voted for Gibbons last time, that sucker. Give me a freakin' break!"
Back at the Big 5 Sporting Goods store and far off the trail, nobody recognizes the 6-foot-1 Tarkanian despite his history as a UNLV basketball star and his years running for public office.
Alex Arias, the assistant manager, says he knows a bit about Tarkanian's UNLV glory days. Asked if he knew Tarkanian is running for the U.S. Senate, Arias shrugs.
"Now that you mention it I think I did see a sign or something. But I don't really know that much about his politics."
Contact Laura Myers at lmyers @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.