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July 22, 2014

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The governor’s race:

What will voters hear when Rory Reid, Brian Sandoval debate?

With Reid, Sandoval set to debate on education, fiscal reality, political risk likely to hinder a frank discussion

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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

After weeks of nearly begging his Republican rival in the governor’s race, Brian Sandoval, to debate him, Democrat Rory Reid will get his wish Sunday.

Reid has prodded Sandoval into an impromptu mini-debate, traveled with a cardboard cutout of Sandoval to a speech in Reno and issued weekly news releases and a Web ad accusing the Republican of dodging a true debate.

So can voters expect a gimmick-filled game of political dodge ball or a penetrating discussion of Nevada’s deeply troubled education system?

The chances for the latter are slim, the thinking goes, despite the debate forum being focused on education.

For one, the next governor will be faced with a $3 billion shortfall next year, meaning precious few resources will be available for implementing significant reform — an irony given the fact that the location of the debate, the Agassi College Preparatory Academy, spends almost double per pupil as traditional public schools.

“How do you fix education when tax revenues are down and you face an enormous budget crunch?” Republican political consultant Ryan Erwin said. “It will be interesting to hear their ideas for that, but it’s not like anybody will have money to dramatically overhaul the system or the process.”

Both candidates have put out plans for education reform, which they describe as “revenue neutral” and focus on accountability, overhead cost reduction and more local control.

Sandoval supports vouchers and eliminating teacher tenure. Reid supports paying high-performing teachers higher salaries.

Neither candidate has addressed the issue of higher education funding.

To further complicate an honest discussion of the state’s education system, neither candidate has put forward a plan for dealing with the looming budget shortfall.

When asked about the candidate’s strategy, both campaigns had similar statements.

“The audience will get an hourlong discussion of education,” Reid spokesman Mike Trask said.

“Brian will speak directly to the voters about his views on education,” his spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said.

The debate will be hosted by KLAS’ 8 News NOW and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It will be broadcast statewide at 6 p.m. Sunday.

But beyond the policy discussion, the political perils and opportunities are potentially more significant in a race that has yet to really get off the ground.

As the underdog, down double digits in public polls, Reid’s goal will be to provoke Sandoval in an attempt to change the dynamics of the race, make headlines Monday and define himself as independent of some of the baggage being lugged by the Democratic Party and, most notably, his father, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“He needs to shake things up,” Democratic consultant Dan Hart said. “You create controversy. You try to put your opponent on the spot. You do something that is unexpected.”

Sandoval, on the other hand, has been counseled by advisers to do his best not to make news. His job, as the front-runner seeking not to lose any ground, is to sound knowledgeable on the issues, project an air of leadership and “look gubernatorial.”

“He’s got to keep it between the lines and not make any mistakes,” Erwin said. “He’s got to be well-prepared and articulate himself appropriately. He’s got to avoid traps every debate has.”

Erwin noted Sandoval will have to be on guard not to be drawn “into the weeds” debating the ins and outs of past decisions he’s made.

So, what are Reid’s plans for the cardboard cutout now that the real Sandoval is expected to be onstage Sunday night?

“We’re going to bring it, just in case,” Trask joked.

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