RENO " Republican Rep. Dean Heller faces an Aug. 12 primary election challenge from Sparks pawn shop owner and Ron Paul-backer James Smack, but you wouldn't know it to hear Heller talk.
So far, the first-term congressman has saved all of his "smack" talk for Democrat Jill Derby, who came surprisingly close two years ago to beating him in Nevada's sprawling 2nd Congressional District.
"One thing I can tell you about my opponent out there talking, anytime her lips are moving, she is raising your taxes," Heller said in a recent radio interview.
"My opponent is going to say I'm against seniors, veterans, children, puppies, kittens," he said about his likely opponent in November.
Derby, who has no primary opponent, lost to Heller last time 50 percent to 46 percent " a margin of 12,575 votes " in the largely rural district that covers all of Nevada save most of Las Vegas and has been represented only by Republicans since it was created in 1980.
But since November 2006, Republicans' voter registration advantage in the district has shrunk from 48,346 to 28,433 as of June 30 " 178,771 active Republicans vs. 150,338 active Democrats.
The Cook Political Report, an independent nonpartisan publication in Washington, D.C., recently changed its analysis of the district from "solid Republican" to "likely Republican."
The lack of a primary opponent has allowed Derby to spend time trying to take advantage of the rural conservative roots she says were a way of life on the Flying Flapjack Ranch where she grew up near Lovelock.
She endorsed the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that struck down the District of Columbia's ban on handguns " often a hot-button topic in Nevada and other western states.
"I consider myself a moderate to conservative Democrat, certainly fiscally conservative," Derby said recently. "A primary issue to me in my race is the disastrous deficit spending has to stop."
Derby said Heller is vulnerable because he has made a sharp right turn from his days as a popular, bipartisan secretary of state who boasted of his environmental credentials while serving on the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
"I'm now running against somebody with a very conservative record. That wasn't the case before," said Derby, who had raised $870,636 by June 30 compared with Heller's nearly $1.2 million.
Heller had campaigned as more of a moderate in a hotly contested 2006 primary against state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle and Dawn Gibbons " a former state assemblywoman and estranged wife of Gov. Jim Gibbons. Heller finished 421 votes ahead of Angle.
"When he ran two years ago, (the primary) was a huge, huge distraction," said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno who is a Republican. "It sucked up his resources. It seemed to destabilize his fall campaign and the race ended up being much closer than anyone thought it would be."
"Now, this primary shouldn't have an impact. He's already focused on the fall," he said. "As far as he is concerned, he is running against Jill Derby."
Smack, 41, who lives in Fallon, isn't given much of a chance of keeping Heller from another date with Derby in the general election.
"I've never heard of the guy before," Lokken said. "From the point of view of just the money needed to be relevant, I don't think he could raise that. He has no name recognition."
Smack said he filed a report with the Federal Election Commission showing contributions of $3,196 and has since raised a total of $5,000. He said he already bought air time for a television ad in Pahrump and plans a radio buy soon in the Reno-Sparks area.
He acknowledges "we definitely have an uphill battle."
Heller "is an entrenched career politician in the state, very well known, very well funded," Smack said. "We really need to get some money raised in a hurry."
He said his all-volunteer campaign staff is targeting rural areas known for big primary turnouts, such as Churchill, Elko and White Pine counties.
"Hopefully it will result in the biggest upset in Nevada history in the primary, but if it doesn't work that way, there's always two years from now," he said.
Smack said he agrees with Heller "probably 75 percent to 80 percent of the time" but criticizes him as a "rubber stamp" and a "parrot" for President Bush " the same theme Derby has emphasized since announcing her candidacy in February.
In his two years in Congress, Heller has voted with Republicans 92 percent of the time, according to The Washington Post.
Like the ex-presidential hopeful and Texas Rep. Paul, Smack said his campaign is focussed on "constitutional issues," including repealing the Patriot Act. He said the law that Heller has supported is unconstitutional and "essentially robbed us of many of the liberties that we had before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11."
"Although his record may be recognized as conservative by many, he has not voted consistently to protect the Constitution," Smack said.
Both Republican candidates advocate opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, making English the official language of the nation, cracking down on illegal immigration and cutting taxes.
Smack wants to suspend the federal gas tax for a full year, abolish the U.S. Department of Education, pull out of the United Nations and work toward the elimination of the federal income tax.
He said his own plan for combating illegal immigration includes pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq as well as closing U.S. military bases in Europe and Asia to help protect U.S. borders.
Heller also has been an outspoken critic of U.S. immigration policy, favoring one that doesn't include amnesty, and has opposed withdrawing troops from Iraq. He has introduced legislation to mandate English-only ballots for federal elections and supports a definition of marriage as a union only between a man and a woman.
House Republicans picked him to give the party's weekly radio address in May when he took aim at Democratic leadership's failure to take action to reduce gas prices. He said the last two years in Congress have been "an absolute tax and spending spree."
"If you make $500,000 gross in a year, a half million, you are considered wealthy with this Congress and my opponent," Heller said " again about Derby, not Smack.
Smack said if he was in Heller's shoes he'd probably ignore the unknown challenger, too.
"What is he going to do, attack me?" he said. "It's almost silly for him to pay attention to me."