ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE
Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Jim Gibbons was like a tabloid starlet in fall 2006, with a new salacious story appearing seemingly every week.
He had the honor of one of those pencil drawings of himself on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, with an accompanying story about him going on a party cruise with defense contractor Warren Trepp.
He was accused of assaulting a cocktail waitress in a parking garage after a night of drinking at a Las Vegas seafood joint.
And a woman said Gibbons had hired her to be a nanny for the family even though she was in the country illegally.
Gibbons denied the allegations, but any of the three would have buried most candidates.
Despite it all, and in a year when long-suffering Democrats across the country swept Republicans out of office, Gibbons’ opponent, state Sen. Dina Titus, could muster just 44 percent of the vote, losing by 4 points.
“How does a guy win who’s accused of assaulting a cocktail waitress, has an illegal nanny in his basement, and Warren Trepp?” asked a Democratic operative, granted anonymity to speak freely.
Some Democrats, who never liked Titus and her blunt, tough politics, betrayed smirks on the evening of her defeat.
Titus is not the apologizing type, or even the introspective type.
“I don’t look back,” she said in an interview last week.
She defends her 2006 campaign proudly, and offers a reasonable defense — she had no money after a competitive primary contest.
Her conduct during her challenge to Rep. Jon Porter in the Third Congressional District suggests Titus learned some lessons from that crucible of the 2006 campaign. The mistakes are easy enough to catalogue.
As one Democratic operative noted, Titus had not one Democratic primary, but two. During the 2005 legislative session, she faced a presumptive run by then-Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins. That shadow primary, before Perkins decided not to run, created the first wave of intra-party bitterness.
Titus and a seasoned hand she hired to run the campaign, Dave Barnhart, parted ways, and she began managing it herself.
Experienced politicos say this is always a bad idea, like a doctor performing surgery on herself. It forced Titus to play good cop and bad cop, adding stress and not allowing her to focus on connecting with voters.
The campaign took on a roller-coaster feel, with clear and stark lines about friends and enemies, say many observers.
She was surrounded by acolytes who were fine as grass roots volunteers but were not up to the strategic thinking and lacked the operational abilities needed to win a statewide campaign. Moreover, the campaign, stocked with “Team Titus” volunteers, was seen by Democrats as insular and unwelcoming.
Running against Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson in the primary, Titus ran to the left against the moderate, which made it harder to run to the center in the general election. Meanwhile, she used a tough advertising campaign during the primary that accused Gibson of being a “pay-to-play” mayor — essentially a crook. This made it difficult to unite the party in the fall.
After her tough victory against Gibson, she was left with just $3,000 in the bank. The absence of money created a lull. Titus couldn’t immediately begin her campaign against Gibbons.
The Gibbons’ team stepped into the vacuum. Gibbons, who had light competition in his own primary, had several million dollars to spend. His campaign began running ads that defined Titus as a big taxing liberal who would give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.
It was crude, and sometimes misleading, labeling her “Dina Tax-us.” But it was effective.
“It’s real simple,” said Billy Vassiliadis, the chief executive of advertising and public affairs firm R&R Partners who helped Titus at the close of the campaign. “She started the general election with no money. Gibbons had a ton of money. First two or three weeks (Gibbons’ team) made a smart decision and started banging away on her out of the box,” he said.
Titus has a folksy phrase for it: “We ran that campaign on bailing wire and chewing gum.”
Titus deserves some of the blame, however. A Democratic operative said she was not an effective fundraiser.
After the primary, she hired a new press secretary and a campaign manager. But there was no money and no statewide organization, and Gibson would never endorse her.
Even when she got some money together, her attacks on Gibbons were unfocused until the very end.
In their first debate in Reno, Titus mistakenly referred to the crowd of UNR students as UNLV students, the worst moment of the campaign, she acknowledged.
Gibbons, it seemed, would walk away with the race.
Then October came, and the congressman began his stumbles.
“But it all came too late for people to realize” what they were getting, Titus said.
Even though she spent lots of time campaigning in rural Nevada, Titus was badly beaten there.
Titus unleashed something of a tirade in a Las Vegas Sun interview a few days after the election, blaming rural voters for sexism and saying she wouldn’t be surprised if Gibbons was indicted.
Democrats are in agreement that this year’s version of Dina Titus is markedly different: More willing to accept advice, managed by a professional team, raising money at a healthy clip, a happier warrior.
Without a primary, she’s been able to avoid attacking friends and potential friends.
Vassiliadis said she’s in a position to beat Porter this time because of her fund-raising, as well as her maturation as a candidate. “She knows the importance of keeping herself from having too many emotional highs and lows,” he said.
A Republican operative who worked for Gibbons in 2006 said he’s urged the Porter team to do what it can to get under Titus’ skin. “That’s when she makes mistakes,” he said.
Thus far, it’s been to no avail.
“She’s aware of the importance of campaign tempo, and the fact that you have to map out and run a campaign over many months,” Vassiliadis said.
For Titus, running with the support of the national and state party establishment, and in a Democratic year, there’s plenty of incentive to stay on message and smile for the cameras.
This may be her last chance.