With only two years to go, early birds have their eyes on 2010 governor’s race

Generally, incumbent officeholders have the advantage in elections.

Gov. Jim Gibbons might be the exception.

Few consider Gibbons the favorite when he seeks reelection in two years, as the Republican governor says he plans to do.

Gibbons is extremely unpopular, according to polls. Not only has he seemingly lost the public, he has alienated many of the political power brokers who helped get him elected in the first place.

And so others, both Republicans and Democrats, have begun lining up to run for governor in 2010.

Though his political obituary has been written seemingly since his governorship began two years ago, Gibbons definitely does not consider himself a lame duck as he heads into what is likely to be a contentious 2009 legislative session.

In an interview, he called himself “pretty solidly resolved” to run again.

“I definitely am running,” he said.

“My intention today is to run for re-election.”

One member of Gibbons’ own party also says he has made up his mind:

“I am running for governor,” North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon said in an interview.

This far out from November 2010, such statements are subject to change based on changing political conditions, and they may be trial balloons. But there’s no doubt the jockeying has begun.

Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, another Republican, also has told friends he is interested in running, although he did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Other Republicans have been the subject of speculation but are being coy about their intentions for now, such as Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and former state Sen. Joe Heck, R-Henderson.

On the other side of the aisle, the combination of Gibbons’ perceived weakness and big Democratic gains in this month’s general election has Democrats licking their chops.

The most forthright about his intentions so far has been Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, who says he is almost definitely in the race.

“I’ve been traveling around the state and talking to a lot of people,” said Reid, the son of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who also will be on the ballot in 2010. “I’m encouraged by the support that is there, and I’m certainly leaning toward running. I’ll probably make the decision soon.”

Rory Reid’s candidacy poses a disruption to the purported plans of Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, who has been laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial run for the past year, though she has never publicly announced her potential candidacy.

Buckley said last week she is “completely focused on dealing with the state’s unprecedented economic challenges, and that is the only thing on my mind right now.”

Once the 2009 Legislature ends, she said, “Certainly there’s no doubt I’d be interested. It’s just not where my focus is right now.”

And then there is perennial wild card Oscar Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, who also flirted with a run in 2006. He has said this time is different because his wife has given permission, and that he will run if he thinks the state needs him.

Not counted out but considered unlikely to enter the fray are up-and-comers Ross Miller, the secretary of state, and Catherine Cortez Masto, the attorney general. Both are heirs to political families in their first terms in elected office; both said last week that they haven’t decided whether to seek second terms in their current posts or explore other options.

In addition to the governor’s post, the other five statewide constitutional offices will be up for election in 2010: lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, controller and attorney general. All are Democrats except for Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki.

Krolicki has said he hopes to challenge Harry Reid for the U.S. Senate, a race that is bound to get national attention and money because of Reid’s high profile as the Senate majority leader.

But if another Republican emerges as the party’s favorite for that office, Krolicki could instead be in the gubernatorial mix.

Party insiders will try to coalesce around favorites for both nominations to try to head off a potentially messy primary.

Gibbons, for his part, said he welcomed all comers.

“I am encouraged that people are interested in serving in the public arena. That is a worthwhile endeavor on anyone’s part,” he said. “I encourage people to serve our state … even if it means running against me, even if it means running against the man in the moon.”

Gibbons said he is focused on leading the state through its current economic troubles, not politics. He said he believes his work to keep taxes low and government small and to develop renewable energy makes him deserving of a second term.

“I talk to people all the time, and they’re very concerned about the future of this state and very pleased that there is a steady hand at the helm,” he said. “The people I talk to are comfortable with my leadership through this difficult time for our state.”

The governor’s problems have ranged from personal scandals and a messy divorce-in-progress, to personnel issues, to a $1.5 billion budget shortfall. Though no one is blaming him for the budget crisis, a product of unforeseen plummeting revenues, Gibbons’ critics say he hasn’t offered a vision to lead the state out of it.

Montandon, the three-term mayor of heavily Democratic North Las Vegas, is among those who accuse Gibbons of having no policy proposals beyond his “no new taxes” mantra.

“I like to consider Jim Gibbons a friend, but he has been very, very stuck on one answer,” Montandon said.

“If the question is jobs, if the question is education, whatever the question is, the answer is, ‘We’re not going to solve it by raising taxes.’ At some point, your policy analysis needs to get a little deeper than that. If your entire policy (platform) is based on one statement like that, you simply can’t have an open mind.”

Montandon is not well known statewide, but he believes he has a chance because of his track record of working in a bipartisan manner to create economic development. He also hopes to gain an advantage by getting in the race early.

“I tell people all the time, ‘I’m not competitive, but I certainly prefer winning,’ ” he said.

Also looking to capitalize on an early head start is Rory Reid, who last summer commissioned a poll by a Washington, D.C., firm to assess his chances.

The poll conducted by the Mellman Group in June found Democratic voters strongly preferred Reid to Buckley, 51 percent to 20 percent. The poll also found Reid would easily defeat Gibbons in a potential general election matchup, 49 percent to 32 percent.

In a series of questions in the poll aimed at gauging the potential effect of two Reids on the same ballot, the vast majority said that would not make a difference in how they voted, but some did say it would make them less likely to support either the senator or his son.

The poll did not test how Rory Reid might fare against Goodman, the colorful former mob lawyer who was re-elected to a final term last year with 84 percent of the vote. Nor did it ask how other Democrats would do with Gibbons as their opponent.

Reid said he began to consider running, because “I became more and more disillusioned with the current governor’s performance and more and more concerned about the future of our state, and I think I can help.”

Currently in his second term on the Clark County Commission, Reid said he would push for more inclusive and transparent government.

“We need to decide what we want to be as a state. We need a vision,” he said.

One prominent Republican political consultant, Sig Rogich, said many twists and turns lie ahead as the gubernatorial race takes shape.

“Two years is a long way off,” said Rogich, an early and influential supporter of Gibbons’ gubernatorial bid. “I certainly think Rory Reid would be very strong in that race, though you can’t discount Barbara Buckley. If I had to pick favorites, I certainly would think Rory would be tough to beat.”

Asked whether he would be an ally of Gibbons as the governor seeks a second term, Rogich said, “I don’t know if he’s running for re-election. He says he is. A lot will depend on how this legislative session goes.”

The legislative session is scheduled to begin in February and end in June.

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

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