As Titus turns her attention to Gibbons, hope springs eternal | NevadaAppeal.com

As Titus turns her attention to Gibbons, hope springs eternal

John L. Smith

Dozens of dizzy Democrats jammed the Nevada State Education Association headquarters on East Harmon Avenue on Tuesday night and watched their candidate, college political science professor Dina Titus, take primary challenger James Gibson to school.

If only they were all this easy.

The optimism flowed as freely as the beer and wine, and talk of taking back the Governor’s Mansion was heard above the music. There was a genuine excitement in the room from a crowd that in recent years hasn’t had all that much to cheer about.

The Titus-Gibson race was over so early Tuesday evening that I saw her supporters watching “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” and “Inside Edition.”

In the middle of the room, Titus diehards Garth and Karen Winkler couldn’t stop grinning. Garth met a young professor with a foot-thick Georgia drawl as a graduate student at University of Nevada, Las Vegas back in 1977.

“If you think she has a Southern accent now, you should have heard it then,” he said, laughing. “She was very, very bright with a very quick wit.”

But will conservative Nevada attach itself to Titus?

On Tuesday night, anything was possible.

“I think Nevada has a pretty good track record of electing women,” Garth Winkler said.

Karen Winkler added, “I’ll tell you, women are ready (for a woman governor). She always looks at the crowd and sees the individual.”

Debbie Springer is another Titus backer with a story about the candidate. Long before she was active in Democratic Party politics, Springer wrote Titus, who responded with an invitation to coffee.

“She’s one of the people who got me involved,” Springer said. “She took the time to sit down and talk to me, and I wasn’t even her constituent.”

I heard a dozen more similar stories, including a few that ended with Republicans re-registering to support Titus. That’s just one aspect of Titus’ overall game that isn’t widely appreciated.

She can work a room the size of the Silver State and is a relentless campaigner, not to mention a bruising debater. (She pummeled the comparatively reserved and soft-spoken Gibson in their televised debates.)

Titus’ networking skills and grass-roots experience served her well in the primary, but she was predicted to win.

But she wasn’t expected to win in rural Nevada.

“She’s real grass-roots,” Urban Chamber of Commerce President Hannah Brown said above the cheers as the early voting results were announced. “Wherever I’ve seen her, she’s real comfortable. She’s very much a part of the people.”

When it became clear that Titus had dominated Gibson in rural Nevada, where her liberal reputation was supposed to be a liability, Brown said, “It gives me some hope.”

State Democratic Party Chairman and County Commissioner Tom Collins, who was prepared to give Tuesday’s winner a $10,000 check from his political action committee, Nevadans For the American Dream, enthused, “If she wins tonight, she’ll be the next governor because the Democrats are going to unite and make that happen.”

Perhaps. But Gibson’s entry into the race was a sign that not all the state’s Democrats were behind Titus or believed she had a chance to succeed against Congressman Jim Gibbons.

Will the conservative Democrats and foot-dragging skeptics really get behind her?

At least one top Republican operative doesn’t think so.

“Dina has proved herself to be a very dynamic campaigner,” he said. “If you don’t believe that, go ask Jim Gibson. She won. And she won handily. My opinion is that Dina has always been under-estimated in this race.

“But I think it’s really difficult for Dina to sell herself as a mainstream leader. She’s a liberal. She has a voting record as a liberal in the state Senate. She’s going to have a tough time with any believability factor moving to the middle.”

It’s already clear that the race probably will be decided in Clark County. Gibbons is sure to win in the 2nd Congressional District, his stomping grounds.

Titus is a favorite to win the heavily Democratic 1st District. That means the fight for the governor’s job probably will be decided in the 3rd District.

As the Titus celebration continued, it was already clear that winning the next race won’t be as easy.

• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.