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November 22, 2014

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Could they be any more different?

One candidate for governor is a twangy-tongued Southerner with an acid wit and a program for education, health care, energy and the environment. The other is a snow-haired fighter pilot from Sparks with a resume and a promise to hold the line on taxes and spending.

Jim Gibbons and Dina Titus. North and South. Conservative and liberal. Man and woman.

"There hasn't been a contrast like this in maybe forever," said Kent Oram, a longtime Nevada political consultant. "It's a stark contrast."

So often in politics, and especially in Nevada politics, candidates offer little in the way of real choice for voters, as they chase the moderate, undecided middle, using money from all the usual suspects to do it.

Not this year, when two candidates of radically different styles will offer up competing visions for the future, one expressed in a measured monotone, the other in a wickedly smart carnival bark.

Titus, the state Senate minority leader and a UNLV professor, will be out every day pounding Rotary podiums telling voters government ought to be harnessed to move the state forward with better education, health care, alternative energy and economic diversity. She would be Nevada's first woman governor.

She believes Nevada lags behind the rest of the country in important measures of social health such as high school and college degrees, diversification of the economy, childhood poverty and crimes against women and children.

For Titus, only a more activist government can ameliorate these problems. She is calling for all-day kindergarten and higher teacher pay. She would invest in renewable energy to meet the state's energy needs and diversify the economy. She would fight for environmental protection. She would spend money to attract nurses and keep them.

Gibbons will campaign at a higher altitude, finishing his congressional term in Washington while he runs on the theme that government should stay out of the way so free enterprise can move the state forward.

For Gibbons, taxes are the enemy, and new programs will lead to higher taxes if the state's current surplus runs dry.

He would consider using future surpluses to give taxpayer rebates. He believes in a school voucher program that would allow parents to opt out of public schools, though he hasn't laid out specifics.

Gibbons wants fewer remedial students in the state's universities. He would use the SAT or another test as a new hurdle to winning a Millennium Scholarship. Nevada awards the scholarships to high school students who earn a certain grade point average to attend Nevada colleges and universities. He would direct money to vocational and community colleges.

He would use tax subsidies and a friendly regulatory environment to attract geothermal energy companies, as well as oil refineries and "clean coal" plants at old mining sites.

Titus will label Gibbons a failed congressman; Gibbons will call Titus a tax-and-spend liberal.

Gibbons begins the campaign with a massive financial advantage, having already raised $4 million. He expects to raise $2 million more, although he spent more on his primary campaign - at least $2.5 million - than he probably would have liked.

He has the backing of Sig Rogich, a prominent Nevada lobbyist with strong ties to the Republican Party. Gibbons raised most of his money in large donations from the gambling, development and construction and pharmaceutical and health care industries.

After a tough primary battle of her own in which she was outspent two-to-one, Titus is just about broke. She'll now turn back to the small donors that kept her afloat and national fundraisers such as Emily's List and the Democratic Governor's Association.

She has already heard from national Democratic figures such as Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who was a pioneer as the first woman governor of her state.

Titus will also be calling traditional Nevada sources and reminding them that they shouldn't underestimate her, given the results of Tuesday's primary, said Gary Gray, a Democratic consultant. "I think a lot of people will see the performance she put on in this primary, and they'll start supporting her," Gray said. "I mean those who write checks."

Titus also expects Nevada to become a pivotal battleground in advance of the 2008 presidential elections. The state is likely to win approval on Saturday for a Democratic caucus early in the primary election season, an event that will draw candidates and special interest groups who will want to help a potential governor.

Finally, Titus, whose mother is Greek, said she's going after "the national Greek money."

Nevada Republicans are divided over how Gibbons should use his early money advantage. Activist Chuck Muth said Gibbons should define Titus "right out of the box" before she can raise her own money and respond.

Reno lobbyist and consultant Greg Ferraro said he expects a cooling-off period to give voters a chance to breathe.

Titus showed Wednesday she's not waiting to find out. She went right on the attack, comparing her record to Gibbons': "I've been on the front lines in Nevada while he's been on the back bench in Washington."

Nevadans are likely to hear a lot about Gibbons' career in Washington, where he was passed over for committee chairmanships by his Republican colleagues.

There may be no better indication of the coming line of Titus attacks than comments Wednesday from Billy Vassiliadis, the chief executive of R&R Partners, the advertising and lobbying firm of "What happens here, stays here."

Vassiliadis stayed out of the Democratic primary, but he's known Titus since he was her student at UNLV, and he seemed eager to rough up Gibbons: "He's a 10-year congressman who was shunned for every committee position he ever pursued. His peers in the House have spoken volumes in the last few years. The speaker of the House and the leadership have spoken, and Nevada should listen."

Titus will also have to convince voters that her own vision is one they should share.

Oram said Titus has a tough road ahead of her. She needs to win big in Clark County. She needs to win over unaffiliated voters who lean Republican, which won't be easy after a primary in which she reached out to Democrats as their true champion.

Oram said this is not 1994, when he ran the campaign of former Gov. Bob Miller, who trounced Gibbons in the gubernatorial race.

Gibbons ran out of money that year and didn't have the congressional career he has now, which will allow him to call in favors.

"Will conservative Democrats and unaffiliated go with a liberal Democrat?" Oram said. "Those are key questions no one has the answer to, but I don't think you can underestimate Dina Titus."

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