Monday, June 10, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
A couple of weeks ago, Jim Gibbons dropped a bomb.
He released poll numbers that showed him comfortably ahead of two Republican challengers in the 2nd Congressional District race to succeed retiring Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev.
According the poll, Gibbons by late May had built a 41-point lead over former Lander County District Attorney Patty Cafferata and Nevada Treasurer Bob Seale.
If you believe his pollster -- Wirthlin Worldwide, Reagan's former outfit -- that would effectively make this a one-man race.
But in his haste to spread the news, Gibbons, a former Nevada Air National Guard colonel, may have acted too soon. He released the results 10 days before the close of filing.
By most accounts, two top-flight challengers -- Cheryl Lau and Thomas "Spike" Wilson -- were encouraged that Gibbons, whose vote as an assemblyman to increase his own pension is a political liability, was sitting out there all by himself.
On the final day of filing, Lau and Wilson jumped into the race.
At least in Lau's case, the poll was a factor.
"Mr. Gibbons is a very worthy opponent, but what I saw in the poll was lackluster," Lau said.
While Wilson didn't say it was Gibbons' poll that promoted his surprise filing, he did say he drew encouragement from the lack of strength demonstrated by some candidates.
Wilson, a 61-year-old ex-state senator and former chairman of the Nevada Ethics Commission, studied the Democratic primary and saw a field led by well-liked but underfunded David Ward, a Reno public relations executive. Ward withdrew Thursday, two days after Wilson filed.
"He's a good guy, but his campaign didn't seem to be moving," Wilson said.
Wilson and Lau's last-second decisions illustrate the maneuvering that can occur months before an election.
Some campaign teams regard the release of poll numbers as a tricky endeavor. Candidates spend a lot of money on polls -- in Gibbons' case, $10,000 -- but if the news is good, polls can serve as a magnet to attract campaign contributions.
The day Gibbons' poll came out, he was in Las Vegas waving it at casino executives.
Boyd Gaming and Bally's Las Vegas contributed a combined $7,500.
Boyd President Chuck Ruthe said Gibbons' polling numbers helped convince Boyd's PAC to contribute $5,000.
"He understands gaming very well," Ruthe said.
Campaign managers also know that polls can create a bandwagon effect. Once the numbers are printed in the newspaper, they become part of the public domain.
"Did you see how far ahead Gibbons is?" people begin to say. "The race is over."
That kind of talk gets picked up by the media, who accept it as gospel, and then produce stories portraying speculation as fact.
The secret, campaign managers say, is knowing when to release the results.
Bob Coffin, a Democrat running in the 1st Congressional District, encompassing urban Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson, waited until the day after the filing deadline to release his poll.
Those numbers showed him trailing Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., but only by 7 percentage points.
Coffin said he could have released partial figures before the filing deadline, but he conceded that would have put him at risk of inviting competition.
Gibbons' campaign manager, Mike Dayton, said their poll wasn't released too soon.
"A lot of people in the gaming industry are making up their minds who to support," Dayton said. "We released the poll with the prospect that people who make contributions would go with the clear front-runner."
With Lau and Wilson joining an already-crowded field, some observers are saying Gibbons' poll has been rendered worthless.
UNLV political science Professor Michael Bowers said Wilson and Lau, a former secretary of state, bring solid credentials.
"She (Lau) becomes a strong alternative to Gibbons," Bowers said. "Probably some of his support will decline."
Eric Herzik, political science department chairman at the University of Nevada, Reno, still rates Gibbons as the Republican front-runner, especially since Lau has lost a previous campaign to Gibbons.
"She was the front-runner (in the 1994 GOP gubernatorial primary) and couldn't pull it off," Herzik said.
The most encouraging statistic for Republican candidates in the 2nd District doesn't come from a poll, but from voter registration numbers.
The 2nd District, including all of Nevada except urban Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson, favors Republicans by about 37,000 voters.
"As a rule, Republicans vote the party line and don't split tickets as Democrats do," Bowers said. "If you have a Republican majority district, you can pretty much count on the Republican winning."
Bowers said the Democratic winner can be helped, however, if the Republican candidates beat up on one another.
Herzik rates Wilson as the clear front-runner in the Democratic primary, which includes Reno Sands Regency casino security guard Mike Martin and former prostitute Jessi Winchester of Virginia City.
Herzik said Wilson's weakness is that he hasn't run a campaign since 1982. "A lot of Nevadans will say, 'Spike who?'"