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Another one bites dust: A-list challengers to Reid keep bowing out

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid resembles a sharpshooter at the carnival, the guy who swaggers up and rat-a-tat-tat, he fires, and a line of ducks falls over. His girl is impressed and receives yet another stuffed teddy bear.

Republican Congressman Dean Heller isn’t the first duck to get knocked over by Reid. Nor is this Heller’s first time to duck challenging Reid. Recall the other GOP congressman viewed as the Republican’s best hope to unseat Reid — Jim Gibbons in 2004.

In August 2003, Gibbons pulled out after Reid successfully pressured gaming, mining and Washington, D.C., sources to shut off money to Gibbons’ Senate bid and only open the spigot if he ran for the House. Rather than risk losing and having no political job, Gibbons ran for re-election to the House, then won the governor’s job in 2006.

Gibbons, who like Heller was accused of waiting too long to walk away from challenging Reid, said there was plenty of time for another strong GOP contender to mount a campaign against Reid. Folks waiting in the wings who then said they might run included Heller, then-Treasurer Brian Krolicki, then-Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt and wealthy Realtor Jack Woodcock. They all ducked out, leaving Richard Ziser the last one standing as the GOP nominee.

Ziser, the conservative foe of gay marriage, lost to Reid by more than 200,000 votes. It was a far cry from the squeaker of 1998, when John Ensign lost to Reid by 428 votes.

Reid seemed invincible in 2004, unlike this time, when he’s considered vulnerable, presuming Republicans find an A-list candidate. Fundraising is expected to be easier for a credible Republican because the Senate Democrat leader, like his predecessor in the majority leader’s job, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, has become the Democrat Republicans love to hate.

In 2005, the next target to fall was Attorney General Brian Sandoval, who accepted Reid’s second offer of a lifetime federal judgeship. In a canny use of political patronage by Reid, suddenly a Hispanic Republican, then 41, a likable, attractive up-and-comer with good media relations, was no longer in a position to challenge Sen. Reid or any other Reid in the dynasty.

Except Sandoval might be resurrected. He reportedly is considering resigning his judgeship to run against Reid, and the former assemblyman, Gaming Commission chief and attorney general could be a viable contender.

So could former state Sen. Sue Lowden, chairman of the Nevada Republican Party since 2007. She held one term in the Nevada Senate, but in 1996, she was ousted, mainly through the Culinary union’s relentless opposition to her because she and her husband, Paul, run nonunion casinos.

But Lowden, just like Sandoval and Heller before him, could be artfully packaged in paid media ads. The former news anchor and beauty queen is smart, media savvy and presents herself well on TV and in person and is a solid believer in Republican values.

With Heller opting for the security of a safe seat, Sandoval and Lowden appear to be the Republicans’ best hopes of knocking off Reid if one or the other decides to give it a shot.

Perhaps they’ll turn into mechanical ducks too. But it’s also possible the news media in November 2010 could be comparing one of them with John Thune, the three-term congressman who defeated Daschle in 2004.

Daschle, like Reid’s backers are doing, argued that he delivered for the small state and that his power brought home goodies the state wouldn’t obtain otherwise.

Thune argued Daschle was out of touch with South Dakota and blamed him for the gridlock in Washington, D.C.

Will 2010 be a rerun of 2004 and find the often inaudible Reid facing a B-list candidate once again, cruising on to his fifth term in the Senate on the slogan “a powerful voice for Nevada”? Or will someone foil the sharpshooter?

To beat Reid, it’s going to take someone with skills, stature and savvy, someone prepared for a long and likely mean-spirited campaign. Despite his unpopularity, don’t count Reid out. The last time he lost a race was in 1975 when he ran for mayor of Las Vegas.

Reid knows what it takes to win, and truly, he is a sharpshooter at the political carnival.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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