Like everybody else in the country, Las Vegans have been transfixed by the volatile campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. But while the Obama-Clinton duel is fascinating, local voters capable of focusing on more than one political drama at a time have not had a second one to get excited about.
Until now. Last week, Democrat Robert Daskas abruptly halted his nascent bid to unseat Republican Rep. Jon Porter. Soon after, state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus announced that she would take up the challenge instead.
While Porter vs. Daskas looked like a snoozefest, Porter vs. Titus promises to deliver all the taunting, punching and gouging you could ever want in a political contest. And it'll be close, too.
Titus, a veteran state political leader, is coming off a crushing defeat in the 2006 governor's race. Titus, a Las Vegan, could not buy a vote anywhere north of Beatty. It didn't matter that she was a more qualified and thoughtful candidate than Republican Jim Gibbons, she could not persuade Northern Nevada provincialists to vote against one of their own.
The 3rd Congressional District, however, is a different story. Northern Nevada will not be a factor in this race, eliminating a huge obstacle for Titus. In addition, the district encompasses much of Titus' state Senate district, where she is well known and liked. And thanks largely to excitement over January's presidential caucuses, the Democrats have built a significant voter registration lead in the district.
While the political geography has shrunk, the panorama of issues for Titus to exploit has grown geometrically. The campaign is no longer about the state budget, it's about the Iraq war, the economy, health care and immigration reform. It's about No Child Left Behind and medical services for war veterans, torture and the $400 billion deficit, oil dependence and Blackwater.
At one time considered a moderate, Porter has in Washington become a sycophant of the Bush administration. It will not be difficult for Titus to legitimately link Porter with the Iraq quagmire, the spiraling economy and rising health care costs. Porter's opposition to Yucca Mountain and support for stem cell research simply do not signify his independence from the president's overarching agenda.
After three terms, Porter has failed to distinguish himself in Congress, except as a devoted benchwarmer for one of the most destructive presidential outfits in American history. Titus has at her disposal enough raw material to hammer Porter with a fresh piece of damning evidence every single day until Nov. 4.
That said, Titus is far from a lock to win the race. Other factors will come into play. First and foremost: money. Titus must amass -- quickly -- a considerable campaign fund to effectively counter Porter's well-financed attacks. The kind of money she needs will have to come largely from national resources. Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada will have to capitalize on a tremendous opportunity to pick up a crucial seat.
Second, Titus must be prepared for Porter to attack her mercilessly with ads that play fast and loose with the facts. Over three terms, Porter has learned from his GOP brethren that honor and decency always take a back seat to victory.
Titus is no political neophyte. A political science professor by trade, she understands the terrain. She is more than capable of defending herself. But that's only one piece of the puzzle.
A football analogy seems apt: The best defense is a good offense. The longer Titus is able to keep her offense on the field, the fewer opportunities for Porter's offense to score.
That means pounding Porter with the facts of his and his party's failures. There's no need to distort or mislead. Two dozen carefully researched books document the myriad failures of the Bush presidency, and Porter has supported just about every mistake Bush has made.
It strikes me that voters are looking for leaders, not followers. They want candidates who have given considerable thought to where they stand on major issues and can articulate a confident, coherent worldview. Titus is a proven leader who can explain her positions without resorting to cue cards. Porter is a follower who over three terms has failed to deliver any evidence of a vision for the nation's future.
And yet this is 21st century politics we're talking about. Leadership and vision are always important, but campaign savvy is paramount. One reason Al Gore won the 2000 presidential race by only 500,000 votes (i.e., not enough) is that he pulled his punches. He went safe and lost his fire. Titus can't afford to do that.
A key reason John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential race is he failed to respond quickly and aggressively to Republican attacks. Amid the onslaught of swift boat propaganda, Kerry couldn't get his offense back on the field. Titus can't afford to do that, either.
To avoid the Gore and Kerry scenarios, Titus should bring in a couple of "pros from Dover," to borrow a line from "M*A*S*H." Bold, creative and determined to win are essential characteristics of her ideal campaign brain trust. Of course, there's a crucial second part to the equation: If Titus is able to hire some high-powered consultants, she has to actually listen to them.
However things play out, Las Vegans are guaranteed now to get an entertaining and competitive congressional race. Blood and entrails -- at least in a political sense -- will be strewn across Southern Nevada as Porter and Titus fight for every last vote. Politics is not for the weak of heart.
Geoff Schumacher (email@example.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue," both published by Stephens Press. His column appears Sunday.