Nevada Focus: A lock for re-election, Gibbons still raising money

RENO - One thousand-to-one are pretty good odds, even in Nevada.

That's the fund-raising advantage Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons enjoys over his primary opponent - more than $500,000 in his campaign to Mitchell Tracy's $500.

Not that it would matter much anyway. Gibbons is the closest thing to a sure bet as there exists in the world of electoral politics.

The only member of Congress to serve in both the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, the former pilot with staunchly conservative views seems a perfect match for Nevada's largely rural 2nd Congressional District.

''He lives in a very, very conservative district all the way down the line,'' Nevada State GOP Chairman Bob Seale said.

''And he has been doing his job. He is quick to do constituency services and he is right on the issues for his constituency,'' he said.

''It will be a long time before he is successfully challenged. It will probably never happen.''

It's not clear exactly how much money Tracy has raised because candidates don't have to report their cash to the Federal Election Commission until they hit a $5,000 threshold.

''And I don't plan on raising that much in the whole race,'' Tracy said.

Gibbons, on the other hand, collects $5,000 checks on almost a daily basis. And he says there's no reason to apologize for it.

''There are only two ways to run a campaign. One is unchallenged and the other is scared,'' the congressman said in a recent interview.

''You never want to underestimate anyone. Anytime you have a candidate in the race, you have to run as if that other person has the lead and you are behind.''

Gibbons worries he might someday face an opponent who can finance their own campaign, in the way Democrat Ed Bernstein is spending his own fortune to take on Republican John Ensign

''My thought is, you need to introduce yourself to all of the new people arriving in Nevada. And that takes money.

''This is an enormously large congressional district with a large population. It's very expensive to run here,'' he said about the third-largest district in the nation.

For the record, Tracy is under no illusion of unseating Gibbons.

''Usually, who ever gets the most money and spends the most wins,'' said the Las Vegas claims adjuster and former Californian who once ran for office in Orange County.

Also for the record, there IS a Democrat who will be on the ballot in November.

Reno schoolteacher Tierney Cahill entered the race as a class project for her sixth-grade students. She says if she had the kind of campaign cash that Gibbons enjoys, ''I'd give him a run for his money.''

But she too has failed to crack the $5,000 mark so far. And even Nevada Democratic Party leaders consider her candidacy to be a lost cause, due primarily to the rural nature of the district, which covers the entire state of Nevada minus the biggest part of Las Vegas.

''That district is difficult for us. The demographics are challenging,'' said Rory Reid, chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party.

''Historically, it has been hard for Democrats to do well there,'' he said.

Former Rep. Barbara Vucanovich held the seat for 14 years.

Democrat Spike Wilson made a respectable challenge against Gibbons the first time around in 1996, but that's been the exception rather than the rule for Democrats for more than a decade.

''We tried very hard to recruit candidates there. I just think it is difficult for Democrats in Nevada north of Beatty,'' said Reid, son of the U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.

Ryan Erwin, the Nevada GOP's executive director, said Gibbons does a good job of representing all of Nevada, not just his district.

''It makes it a lot easier for us. It allows Congressman Gibbons to focus on his job in Washington and hopefully to help our nominee in District 1 and George Bush,'' Erwin said.

Seale agrees. The former state treasurer was among the Republicans Gibbons defeated in the 1996 primary to succeed Vucanovich.

''He was so far ahead of me, the dust had already settled when I got there,'' Seale said.

Now, Seale can devote his attention to other races, such as the U.S. Senate contest in which former U.S. Rep. John Ensign is favored to defeat Ed Bernstein, and state Sen. Jon Porter's bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in the 1st District.

''I can lean on him to help do other things for the party,'' Seale said.

Tracy ran for public administrator in Orange County, garnering 55,000 or 20 percent of the vote in 1988. He said his main goal this time around in Nevada is to build name recognition for a future bid, or perhaps a shot at the new 3rd District that Nevada anticipates adding in 2002.

Tracy gives Gibbons credit for not putting on the full-court press in the primary.

''I think he's just waiting for the general election.''

So how long will it be before Democrats come up with a genuine challenger?

''I didn't hear the question,'' said Sen. Reid, the state's most prominent Democrat.

The reporter asks again. And Reid answers again, with a smile.

''I didn't hear the question.''

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