Freshman in a Faceoff

For a while, life as a political newbie must have been a real drag for Tom Gallagher.

First there was that press event at Enterprise Library one cloudy afternoon in September. It was as if Karl Rove had a weather machine: Just before the news conference, a cloudburst sent down violent sheets of rain. After dashing inside, attendees spent moments between sound bites pushing wet strands of hair from foreheads.

Then there was the Sept. 19 debate at Congregation Ner Tamid. Gallagher had a cold and seemed to goad himself through what ended up being a half-hearted verbal skirmish with freshman Rep. Jon Porter.

And, oh, the woes of name recognition: Tom who? Already off to a late start when he began his campaign in March, Gallagher found polls revealed that mention of his name in District 3 elicited more shrugs than nods. What was a rich former gaming exec to do?

But as the season has changed, so have Gallagher's fortunes. With less than a month until the Nov. 2 election, the former Park Place Entertainment CEO has made monster strides better befitting a titan of industry, more than halving a 24-point gap in a Review-Journal-commissioned telephone poll. He's continually hammered Porter at news conferences and in ads as a GOP rubber stamp more interested in appeasing party leaders than constituents; meanwhile, Gallagher's also handily parried a particularly potent set of attack ads produced by the Porter camp. In short, the infant District 3 – which Porter snatched from Dario Herrera in 2002 as the would-be golden boy foundered amid ethics woes – is home to the most watched statewide race this year.

And not just within the state. House Democrats have flagged the Porter-Gallagher race as one of nine House seats held by Republicans that are considered vulnerable; Democrats need to win 12 to take the House. District 3, many say, is crucial – and for Nevada Democrats, a second chance.

"If Democrats don't pick up this seat in Nevada," says Rep. Shelley Berkley, "I think it will be very hard to take back the House."

So Porter – Mr. Nice Guy, former Boulder City mayor and state senator – has a set of crosshairs trained on him this election. But wrinkles in this race abound. One is the fact that the district – a sort of propeller-shaped inkblot spreading across urban and rural Clark County – isn't exactly easy to get a bead on.

"The interesting thing about it is that when it was divided [to create District 3], my district, which was the urban core of Las Vegas, was supposed to trend Democratic. And through the years, it has," Berkley observes. "District 3 was drawn to trend more Republican, which it hasn't. Now there are more Democrats than Republicans in the 3rd Congressional District."

As of this writing, about 3,000 more. It's a district many politicians characterize as voting across party lines, with more than 50,000 registered as nonpartisan – both signs of issue-minded voters – and with higher-than-average turnout at the polls.

It's just one quirk that might make this race more than a mere contest of Mr. Invisible vs. Mr. Inexperienced. Sure, the attack ads have been rolled out; rumors abound of candidates having substantial differences of opinions on policy matters. But most interestingly, both candidates come with their own baggage – and a few ideas.

If elected, Gallagher says his top priority will be health care.

"It cuts across everybody's lives, and is a huge problem," he says. "It gets worse every day. We've got 400,000 people in this state without health care. It's the thing I worked hardest at at Park Place. We hired a world-class adviser on that stuff. We did some extraordinary things in terms of doing a much better job at delivering health benefits, and we did some really creative things in terms of trying to encourage people to take care of themselves." He tells of kicking off a program in which teams competed to lose weight. "Health care is one of the most difficult problems we face as a society, as a government, as individuals, and that's where I put a huge priority in terms of this campaign."

Porter's agenda? Who knows. A scheduled phone interview with the first-term congressman did not materialize. Porter simply didn't call at the appointed time. After repeated phone calls from this reporter over the course of three hours, Porter press secretary Adam Mayberry explained that he'd thought an interview with campaign consultant Mike Slanker would suffice for some Porter quotes. Could it be that Porter's image as the Invisible Man is, in fact, the most palpable thing about him?

There are plenty of vulnerabilities to go around. Porter hasn't made many enemies, but neither has his record made him the toast of the town. In his brief congressional tenure, he's established a decent pork pipeline to Nevada – his pamphlets hype money for Nevada State College in Henderson, UNLV, more federal funds for schools – but he's saddled with a reputation as a party robot, going with the GOP on most major issues, including Bush's controversial 2003 energy bill and Medicare reform. Both were roundly criticized as sops to the energy and pharmaceutical industries. (Boulder City Mayor Bob Ferraro, when asked to characterize Porter's service to Boulder City, says he was "very responsive to my requests and concerns." When asked what Porter's best-known contribution to Boulder City is, he says, "Let me think...no, not dredging anything up.")

It hasn't been hard for Gallagher, in a surprisingly substantive ad campaign, to make a case that Porter is a party-pleaser (or, to use Gallagher's fave term, rubber stamp). He points out Porter's nod to giving $167 million in tax credits to power companies exploring nuclear power (read: more nuke waste). Just another facet of that go-along, get-along Porter panache, they say.

Meanwhile, the Porter camp has fired back, painting Gallagher as a carpetbagger, a bored rich guy with fickle political aspirations. If Porter's congressional record is vanilla, Gallagher's record as a businessman is downright sour, says Slanker, Porter's campaign consultant.

"The fact of the matter is that when tens of thousands of Nevadans were out of work, Gallagher made millions of dollars," says Slanker, referring to a TV ad that portrays Gallagher as prospering in the wake of 9/11.

Gallagher balks. "[Porter's] a guy who didn't lift a finger after 9/11 – who in fact disappeared and who, by the way, has voted against extending unemployment compensation for people that lose their jobs. He's criticizing me, where I'm the one that set up a foundation to try to do everything possible to help people who were temporarily out of work." He says during his two-year stint as CEO of Park Place, he oversaw a $1.8 million plan to extend health benefits for laid-off workers, and has one of the best records when it came to post-9/11 layoffs. "When you look at Park Place compared to every other company, we did the best job. For Porter to be criticizing me is just hypocritical."

Gallagher has spent much of his considerable investment on ads to debunk what he says is the Porter team's access to an "unlimited supply of lies."

Then again, they just might do themselves in. Gallagher campaign consultant Dan Hart wonders whether Porter's 9/11 ads – which depict Gallagher grimly winking at the camera ("I can't believe he winked at the camera," says Slanker, who filmed Gallagher at his first debate with Porter) – will backfire.

"It's savage, it's over the top," Hart says of the ad. "I think it's a sign of desperation. Why run such negative ads which could potentially disgrace Porter's persona, his good-guy attitude? We want to keep the race about the issues. Some of that [negative] stuff backfires. Using 9/11 in political ads – I don't think that helps you in the long term." (Slanker counters: "We're just trying to get the truth out there. We're merely referencing 9/11 to take people back three years. It's not exploitation at all.")

But in this case, the personal is political. Slanker and crew persist in their criticism that Gallagher's Southern Nevada roots don't run very deep. "He started with a huge advantage, doing 10 weeks of TV and half a million dollars, trying to sell something that he isn't, saying he fought for the little guy," Slanker says. "His commitment to the district is amazing. He moved from Lake Tahoe and rented a house in Henderson. He owns homes all over the country and doesn't bother to buy in the district? He's an opportunist, a multimillionaire several times over. He makes this proclamation that he's lived in Nevada for seven years. Notice they say Nevada – he was in Lake Tahoe. He's trying to buy the race. Less than 13 percent of his contributors are Nevadans, and besides that he's writing personal checks."

Indeed, perhaps one of Gallagher's biggest liabilities is that he's rich – worth between $8.9 million and $33.7 million, according to financial disclosure statements – a fact fashioned into a "rich carpetbagger" tag by the Porter campaign. But Gallagher thinks the fact that he's tapped his own coffers for the campaign – upwards of $400,000, he says – ultimately works in his favor.

"[Porter's] a guy who's taken almost a million dollars from tobacco, oil and gas, nuclear power, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies," says Gallagher. "If you want to look at what proportion of his campaign has been funded by those guys, as a voter I'm much more worried about that than I am about anybody putting his own money where his mouth is. I decided to [fund portions of my own campaign] because I felt if I was going to ask other people to contribute to make this run, that it was important for me to demonstrate that I wasn't trying to do that on just their dollars.

"There's no question that I've worked very hard and been very, very fortunate," Gallagher says. "I've said to people over and over again, 'That's the reason I got in this race, because Nevada has been very good to me.' And that's my answer."

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