CARSON CITY — Gov. Jim Gibbons finds himself in the same position that faced President Lyndon Johnson early in 1968, according to political analysts.
Does he run for re-election and risk what now appears to be a sure primary loss, or take the route that he is a statesman who will spend 2010 trying to turn around the state economy?
Like Johnson 41 years ago, the governor’s popularity ratings, as measured by polls, are embarrassingly low, just 14 percent favorable in an October survey. And he’s facing a public and potential politically damaging divorce trial Dec. 28-31.
In the midst of an unpopular war in Vietnam, Johnson decided against running for re-election; but Vietnam veteran Gibbons, who turns 65 on Dec. 16, insists he will win though the latest poll shows he would lose the June Republican primary 2-to-1 to Brian Sandoval.
"The only poll that counts is the poll on Election Day," an upbeat Gibbons said during a recent interview when he joked around with reporters.
He figures his no-new-taxes-during-a-recession stance will begin resonating among voters and lead him to victory in November 2010.
But both Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, say the governor could change his mind by Jan. 15, the day he must report his campaign contributions to the secretary of state.
In January of this year, Gibbons reported he had just $147,000 in cash on hand.
During the 2006 campaign, he spent $5.7 million to defeat then-state Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas.
A former aide who requested anonymity said Gibbons will realize he cannot raise enough money to get his message across to voters and decide against being a candidate.
Gibbons insists he can win, however, even if he does not receive the contributions that his opponents might get.
"Just because you can raise $25 million doesn’t mean you can get elected," Gibbons said, an apparent reference to the amount of money some say U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., will raise.
"Just because you raise the most money doesn’t mean you always win. The general election is a year away. A lot can change," the governor said.
Instead of campaigning, Gibbons has been trying to induce out-of-state companies to relocate to Nevada, said Daniel Burns, his communications director.
Burns pointed out that most politicians, including once highly popular California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have slid in the polls because of the bad economy. But once voters are placed in a position to decide between a person like Gibbons or someone untested, they may decide they like the governor better, Burns said.
Gibbons said people tell him how much they like the banner he placed above the entrance to his office in the Capitol. The banner, under the title "Governor Jim Gibbons’ Vision," reads: "The People of Nevada deserve a Government that works for them, not against them."
That expresses the kind of governor he is, Gibbons said.
But the former aide said the governor is hampered in his fundraising ability not only because of the recession, but also because he has repeatedly gone to the same people for money.
The governor has had to raise money for a legal defense fund to fight allegations he took bribes while serving in Congress and to fight a lawsuit by former Las Vegas cocktail waitress Chrissy Mazzeo.
Mazzeo filed a civil lawsuit against Gibbons over allegations that he tried to rape her outside a Las Vegas parking garage during the campaign in 2006.
The lawsuit is still active.
The Clark County district attorney’s office investigated her complaint and did not file charges against Gibbons.
Last fall, the Justice Department concluded an investigation without bringing charges against Gibbons over allegations he took money and trips from friend Warren Trepp in exchange for getting Trepp’s company Defense Department contracts.
Lokken likens Gibbons to Johnson and predicts the governor will be 2010’s LBJ if he listens to mainstream political consultants and decides not to run.
Unless he is surrounding himself only with yes men, Lokken contends that Gibbons must know that barring a miracle, he cannot win re-election.
Gibbons no longer gets his campaign advice from veteran political consultants Sig Rogich, Jim Denton and Robert Uithoven, but from friends such as Reno businessman Howard Weiss and his campaign manager, Robert Olmer.
The former consultants won’t give reasons for why they are no longer close to Gibbons. Rogich said he hasn’t even spoken to Gibbons in a year.
Olmer, who until befriending Gibbons promoted a Lake Tahoe ski resort, said the governor has not had any problems raising campaign funds.
"I was with him recently when during a two-hour period he received commitments of $150,000," said Olmer, who wouldn’t say how much Gibbons has raised so far or how much he needs for this campaign.
"He gets hammered in the press, but he is a guy who is cool under pressure," Olmer said.
"The press has become the dominant factor in deciding who wins elections, not who is the best candidate. He is a man who has been judged guilty before he can prove his innocence."
Many Nevadans end up divorced, and rather than being disturbed by Gibbons’ divorce, they might empathize, Olmer said. The public also now realizes he has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the Trepp and Mazzeo matters, he added.
In addition, the Nevada Ethics Commission has cleared Gibbons of any wrongdoing in securing low property taxes on his $575,000 purchase of land in Elko County, and two women have flatly denied having affairs with the governor, Olmer said.
"This is not a guy who backs down from a challenge."
He said Gibbons is a decorated veteran who flew jets — and was shot at — during the Vietnam War and in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Still, an October poll conducted for the Review-Journal showed former U.S. District Judge Brian Sandoval is poised to trounce Gibbons in the Republican primary.
"You could run Mickey Mouse against him and Mickey would win," Mason-Dixon Polling & Research pollster Brad Coker said about Gibbons.
Coker said the governor’s popularity ratings are about the level given to disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed from office earlier this year.
It is not just one thing that has driven Gibbons’ popularity down, according to Herzik, but the cumulative effect of all his problems.
"He started behind the eight ball, beginning with the odd way he decided to be sworn in on New Year’s Eve," Herzik said. "It’s been one thing after another."
Rather than being sworn in with other state officers in an 11 a.m. ceremony on Jan. 1, 2007, in front of the state Capitol, Gibbons took the oath of office at the stroke of midnight in his Reno home.
Gibbons said he decided to be sworn in early in the interest of state security since the office technically became vacant at midnight.
A check of polls Coker conducted for the Review-Journal over the past two years shows Gibbons was quite popular among voters during his first year in office.
His favorability ratings fell only after he filed for divorce in May 2008 from his wife of 23 years, former Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons.
A poll in December 2007 found voters by a 2-to-1 margin thought Gibbons was doing an excellent or good job as governor.
But by June 2008, a month after the divorce announcement, voters by a 2-to-1 margin had an unfavorable view of his job performance.
Herzik and Lokken both believe Gibbons will ignore the polls and mainstream political analysts and run for another four-year term.
"He sees the numbers. He knows," Herzik said. "History shows you don’t dig yourself out of the hole he finds himself in. He risks a devastating defeat. Johnson took the high road. Maybe Lynn Hettrick can talk some sense into him."
Hettrick, the longtime Republican leader of the Assembly, took a job in the summer as Gibbons’ deputy chief of staff.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.