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October 24, 2014

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No more Mr. Meek: Reid forces Sandoval’s hand with challenge

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Leila Navidi

Gubernatorial candidates Rory Reid and Brian Sandoval greet each other during the Nevada Subcontractors Association’s annual luncheon at the Eastside Cannery Casino in Las Vegas Wednesday, August 11, 2010.

Rory Reid vs. Brian Sandoval

Gubernatorial candidates Rory Reid and Brian Sandoval engage in an impromptu debate during the Nevada Subcontractors Association's annual luncheon at the Eastside Cannery Casino in Las Vegas Wednesday, August 11, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Sun Coverage

The governor’s race has so far been Brian Sandoval’s to lose. While Rory Reid leads in fundraising, by more than $2 million at last count, Sandoval has consistently led in the polls by double-digit margins.

On Wednesday, during the candidates’ first appearance together, Reid attempted to abruptly change the dynamic of the race with an uncharacteristically bold maneuver.

Reid, the Democrat, and Sandoval, the Republican, were scheduled to deliver separate keynote speeches to the Nevada Subcontractors Association. Instead, Reid stepped up to the stage and challenged a stunned Sandoval to a debate.

The men were scheduled to have their first debate, on education, on Aug. 29.

“I was wondering if maybe you’d want to have a dress rehearsal?” Reid asked Sandoval from the podium.

Sandoval sat at a table slowly shaking his head, lips pursed and eyes staring.

“No?” Reid goaded.

“I said ‘yes,’ ” Sandoval replied, standing to join him.

From there, Reid — whose ace of spades had bested Sandoval’s four of diamonds in a card draw to determine speaking order — acted like a man with a winning hand. He dominated Sandoval, laying out the ground rules for the sparring contest, answering questions first and positioning his body in the middle of the podium so Sandoval had to step to the side.

Reid — who can be charming and funny one-on-one, but in conventional political settings has not shown much charisma — acted giddy, almost smug.

“Today the people of Nevada saw the choice they have,” Reid said after the event. “And I think it was a good day for my campaign.”

It’s too early to know if the stunt will resonate beyond the walls of the Eastside Cannery conference room, where the event was held. But it certainly signals a shift in Reid’s approach. A relatively meek candidate until now, Reid showed gumption.

“We need a decisive leader,” he explained.

Reid’s campaign has tried quirky and sharply negative television ads to attract voters’ attention. Meanwhile, a Spanish-language news station said Sandoval said he wasn’t worried about Arizona’s immigration law because his children don’t look Hispanic.

None of that changed the dynamic of the race. Reid has remained down, by as much as 19 points, while the clock ticked toward November.

The butt of jokes and target of criticism for downplaying his last name, Reid, son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, on Wednesday embraced his family ties. He no longer appears to be running from the shadow of his father, whose own bid for re-election has dominated the political spotlight and, by most accounts, hurts the younger Reid’s chances of winning.

Rory Reid mentioned his father three times, telling a story about them fishing and joking that he would work well with Nevada’s senior senator, with whom he “has a pretty good relationship.”

This shift was perhaps recognition that his attempts to downplay the Reid name have failed and brought only unwanted mockery of his candidacy.

The debate, using questions submitted by audience members, lasted only about 15 minutes. Nervous organizers ended the back-and-forth after two questions and directed the candidates to give their prepared speeches.

Those speeches, and even the answers to the debate questions that were allowed, sounded eerily similar. Both candidates talked about the need for strong leadership. Both vowed to improve schools and test scores. Both said economic development is key to restoring Nevada.

The similarity in message might explain why Reid has been so eager to debate Sandoval. Reid almost incessantly notes that he has agreed to 12 debates with Sandoval, only one of which Sandoval has accepted. Reid used the same line Wednesday, even as Sandoval said they have four debates planned.

“The people of Nevada have a right to know how we differ,” Reid maintained.

That could be key. If voters can’t pinpoint differences between the candidates, Reid is unlikely to take the upper hand. Without striking policy divergences, a good portion of voters will pick on name recognition alone and because of his father, the last name Reid carries massive political baggage these days.

Perhaps the card Reid chose at Wednesday’s event was fortuitous. The ace of spades is known as “the death card.” During the Vietnam War, American soldiers placed the cards on dead bodies and even littered the forest and fields with them, to scare away opposition soldiers.

Clearly, Reid hopes to do the same with debates.

Sun reporter David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this story.

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