Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Published Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 | 6:30 p.m.
Updated Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 | 11:20 p.m.
In the second debate of the U.S. Senate campaign, incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller and his Democratic rival, Rep. Shelley Berkley, sparred over online poker, a mining project in rural Nevada and financial reform, laying out the final campaign themes just weeks before early voting begins.
Then the power went out.
A hailstorm cut power to the studio once, just as the candidates began to joust over energy policy. The television stations twice lost their feeds amid the turbulent weather.
"We need to go after our own oil, our own coal, our own natural gas, our own alternative energy ..." Heller said just before the power died.
Berkley quipped: "We could use some now," to laughter from the audience at the Vegas PBS studio.
Throughout the debate, Heller attempted to strike a bipartisan tone, casting himself as a pragmatic problem-solver.
And in a departure from the last debate, Heller passed on some easy shots at Berkley, particularly the ongoing ethics investigation into whether Berkley advocated policies to financially benefit her husband.
“I think the issue has essentially played itself out,” he said.
The move was a sharp departure from last debate, when Heller described the ethics investigation as a big deal.
“It’s huge,” he said in the first debate. “And she can’t get away from it.”
This time, Heller said he would work with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to get an online poker bill passed by the end of this year. On immigration, he said he’s willing to work with Democrats for comprehensive reform.
Berkley was more aggressive, arguing that Heller “is playing for the wrong side” by backing big insurance, big oil, and companies that ship jobs overseas.
Asked by moderator Mitch Fox, of Vegas PBS, about the ethics probe, Berkley said she would not have done anything differently when she lobbied her colleagues to protect Medicare reimbursement rates for kidney care and worked with the rest of the Nevada delegation to save the kidney transplant center at University Medical Center.
“I couldn’t have done more to make sure everyone knew my husband was a kidney specialist,” she said. “I don’t think I should have disclosed more.”
Only eight out of 114 pieces of legislation she sponsored relating to health care had to do with kidneys, she said.
Some of her sharpest attacks on Heller came on online poker, on which Reid has blamed Heller for failing to get votes in the Senate.
“My opponent is failing the people of the state of Nevada,” she said, saying online poker legislation could mean up to 1,200 jobs in Nevada. “My opponent is not doing his job. Either he does not have an understanding of how important this is to the state of Nevada, or he’s not caring.”
Heller waived away the attacks as political. He said he believes he has two opponents in the race — Berkley and Reid.
“Sen. Reid wears a different uniform. He’s obviously fighting for control of the Senate,” Heller said.
Reid saw online poker “as his last best chance to get involved in the U.S. Senate race,” Heller continued. “Twenty-six days from now, Sen. Reid and myself will put aside our differences and get something passed.”
Both Heller and Berkley said it was a mistake to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, which made it easier for banks to expand.
But they differed on the banking reforms recently passed. Heller mentioned he was the only member of the Nevada delegation to vote against the bank bailout. He called the Dodd-Frank bank regulation bill “cover for those who voted for the bank bailout.”
Berkley called her opponent “Mr. Deregulation.”
Fox, the moderator, asked about a Yerington land bill that is stalled in Congress. Berkley said she favors the land transfer proposal, but it had been bundled together with other bills, prompting her to vote against the act. Heller accused her of listening to “extreme environmentalists on the East Coast.”
“Only in Washington could you be in favor of something and still vote against it,” Heller said.
Berkley, said: “I want the mine to open ... I want a brighter future for the people of Yerington. I’m anxious to stand for them.”
On immigration, Heller said he was willing to work with Democrats on reform. He said he supported a pathway to citizenship for those who came here illegally and served in the military or are getting an education.
He said he also supports efforts to push English-only legislation and making it easier to immigrate to the country legally.
“So the principles that I’m trying to support is trying to make these people succeed,” he said. “I want them to succeed here in this country.”
Democrats Thursday night pounced on his reference to “these people,” setting up a conference call with Latino leaders for Friday morning.
“I am deeply insulted by Sen. Heller's disrespectful remarks,” state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, said in a statement moments after the debate.
The first debate in Reno on Sept. 27 featured testy exchanges between Berkley and Heller, but did little to suggest a dramatic change in the overall dynamics of the race.
Heller attacked Berkley over a House Ethics Committee investigation, which accuses her of backing policies that would financially benefit her husband.
“My dad believed that if you played by the rules, you’d be rewarded,” Heller said in the first debate. “And if you didn’t play by the rules, there would be consequences.”
But Heller also had to fend off his musings from a 2010 speech in Elko that unemployment benefits were creating “hobos.”
Heller denied it outright, though press reports from the time confirm that he did indeed draw the correlation between unemployment benefits and “hobos.”
“Look, the fact of the matter is my opponent actually did call unemployed people hobos and that puts him very much in line with what Mitt Romney said about the 47 percent,” Berkley said.
Berkley and Heller, along with a slew of outside interest groups, have bombarded Nevada voters with the traditional national partisan talking points. Republicans accuse Berkley of voting to raise taxes on the middle class and increasing the price of energy; Heller, Democrats say, supports a plan to turn Medicaid into a voucher system for seniors and is cozy with oil companies and Wall Street.
But the race has also had pointed personal attacks, with each candidate questioning each others’ ethics and character.
Heller called Berkley “The most unethical, corrupt person I’ve ever met in my life,” last month. Berkley has tried to muddy the ethical waters by drawing connections, sometimes tenuous, between Heller and businessmen with troubled pasts.
The stakes go beyond Nevada.
Republicans are hoping to take back control of the U.S. Senate, and in the process, remove Reid, conservatives’ bete noire, from his post as majority leader.
While all public polls have Heller leading, most are within the margin of error, indicating a close race. Democrats point to flaws in those polls and the fact that public polling in the 2010 U.S. Senate race predicted that Reid would lose to Republican Sharron Angle.
Both Heller, who grew up and lived in Carson City, and Berkley, who moved to Las Vegas from New York, are veteran politicians who could have likely served out their political careers in safe congressional seats. Berkley has served in the 1st Congressional District, which is safely Democratic, since 1999. Heller was elected to the state’s heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District in 2006, before being appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval to fill the seat vacated when Sen. John Ensign resigned.
Heller, in a question about U.S. Supreme Court justices, also floated Gov. Brian Sandoval’s name as a possible option for the bench.
Fox, after the debate, said the power outage was rare.
"I've been moderating debates for 20 years, and that has never happened before," he said.
Tovin Lapan contributed to this report.