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GOP hopefuls align on issues

RENO — More than 300 people attending the first debate among Nevada’s Republican gubernatorial candidates Friday night learned what they probably already knew — Gov. Jim Gibbons, Brian Sandoval and Mike Montandon say they wouldn’t raise taxes and would challenge the constitutionality of the federal health care reform law.

Members of the crowd — each paid $15 to attend — clapped at almost everything they said and heard them repeatedly say they agree with each other’s views and share the same core conservative values.

"My two friends on both sides of me, both see and want the same thing as I do, the best for Nevada," said Gibbons at the conclusion of the 70-minute debate organized by the Action is Brewing organization, which is aligned with the Tea Party movement.

Debbie Landis, a leader of the organization, has been the prime mover behind several Tea Party rallies at the state Capitol.

While candidates were respectfully polite, Gibbons and Sandoval did clash over whether the governor actually has kept his no-new-taxes pledge.

Sandoval said Gibbons signed a law during the February special legislative session that increases several fees.

"In the special session there were fee increases, on banks, on gaming and mining," Sandoval said. "That budget wasn’t balanced without raising taxes."

Gibbons responded, "The mining industry voluntarily did it (agreed to fee increases). The secretary of state increased banking increases. The Legislature came up with (fee increases). I wouldn’t let them put a $300 million increase on mining."

Both Gibbons and Montandon said they have signed pledges not to increase taxes, while Sandoval said he would not sign a pledge, but gave his word he would not support any tax increases.

Each also pledged to oppose moves by legislators next year to extend the $800 million tax increase that sunsets in 2011.

Sandoval called sunset a "wonderful word."

Although trailing in the polls, Montandon drew the biggest cheers when he said he supports Nevada approving an illegal-immigration enforcement bill like the one signed into law Friday in Arizona, and immediately criticized by President Barack Obama.

That law makes it a crime under Arizona law to be in the country illegally. It also requires police officers to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal immigrants; allows lawsuits against government agencies that hinder enforcement of immigration laws; and makes it illegal to hire illegal immigrants for day labor or knowingly transport them.

"Why are we answering questions on whether illegal immigration should be legal," Montandon said. "I support what Arizona did absolutely."

He added that he supports profiling, calling it the single greatest tool of law enforcement.

Sandoval also said he would back an Arizona-type immigration law and as governor he would take an "aggressive" stand against employers who hire illegal immigrants.

But Gibbons received some booing when he said Nevada doesn’t have the same problem as Arizona because it doesn’t have a border with Mexico.

The governor said he supports a system where illegal residents "ought to go to the back of the line" and take the steps needed to become legal citizens. But he didn’t give a direct answer to the question about the Arizona law.

On another topic, Sandoval received boos and the shout "You are wrong" from someone in the crowd when he said putting high-level nuclear waste at a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, would be harmful to the health and safety of Nevadans.

He called nuclear power "the future of this country," and then shifted quickly to declaring "Nevada can be the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy."

Montandon challenged Sandoval, questioning how he could be pro-nuclear and "tell them (the nuclear industry) they are not welcome."

Gibbons called himself the "only scientist" of the three candidates, adding that nuclear waste can be stored safely and has been stored in Nevada for four decades.

But when Sam Shad, the Reno "Nevada Newsmakers" TV show host who moderated the debate, asked Gibbons specifically to answer what should be done with Yucca Mountain, the governor said he supported closing the facility.

All three candidates said the state should allow individual school principals, teachers and parents to decide the best way to run the schools. Sandoval said he wants "more than anything to stop social promotion for schoolchildren." He said he opposes a tenure system for teachers.

Throughout the debate, Gibbons emphasized he was the only candidate to cut state spending and balance the budget without raising taxes. He noted he also has challenged the constitutionality of health care reform.

"This is not the time to change horses in the middle of the stream," Gibbons said. "I am the guy who has been there for you. I have fought to keep your taxes low."

But Montandon said he was mayor of North Las Vegas for 12 years, balanced budgets and was proud to leave the city better off than he found it.

Sandoval, a former federal judge and state attorney general, said he offered a plan to legislators and the governor during the special session that would have obviated the need for fee increases, but they rejected it.

He had proposed the state sell state buildings for money and then pay rent on them for 20 years when it would reclaim ownership. Arizona has implemented such a sell and lease-back plan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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