Sunday, April 25, 2010 | 2 a.m.
The winner of Friday’s gubernatorial debate wasn’t even there.
The Republican candidates, all three of whom participated, fell over themselves trying to appeal to the conservative base.
They promised to cut $3 billion or so from state spending upon taking office next year. They expressed support for suing the federal government over the new health care law. And they backed Arizona’s tough immigration law, which grants police new powers to detain anyone suspected of being undocumented.
It was smart politics for June’s primary, when the party’s conservative voters have outsized control over the outcome.
But it also fixed the three GOP candidates — Gov. Jim Gibbons, Brian Sandoval and Mike Montandon — on the right of the political spectrum, a position that could be uncomfortable when voters choose the next governor in November’s election.
Who then may be the ultimate winner of the Reno debate? Democrat and Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid.
Reid is running without a competitive primary and Friday’s debate — hosted by the Anger is Brewing, a Tea Party group — provided the clearest evidence yet of the benefit he reaps by getting a pass from his party. While his opponents try to appeal to the Republican Party’s narrow base, Reid can avoid taking positions to placate the liberal or labor base of the Democratic Party.
Not coincidentially, on Thursday Reid backed out of a candidate forum in Southern Nevada, saying he didn’t want to debate the three Republicans.
While Reid has touted his “white papers,” on the economy (he wants to diversify and expand it), ethics (he’s for it), and education (he wants to reform it), he has claimed it could all be accomplished without spending any more money.
Indeed, he has avoided taking a stand on the state’s most pressing issues. During the special session, he wouldn’t take a position on how to fix the state’s $800 million budget hole. He has so far punted on the even larger shortfall — estimated at between $2.5 billion and $3 billion — looming in 2011. And on the federal health care law, he has failed to address its higher future costs for the state except to say that he would not sue to stop the legislation championed by his father, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Instead, he has stood by as his Republican opponents flash their conservative credentials to primary voters.
On Friday, as the Republicans staked out their positions, it was easy to imagine Reid campaign operatives drooling over the material offered up for attack ads.
Each of the three Republicans were asked if they would sign a pledge not to raise taxes.
Gibbons and Montandon said they had already signed it.
Sandoval said he would not, adding: “I’ve said very specifically I’ll not be raising any taxes. I’ll be vetoing any tax.”
On Arizona’s immigration law and racial profiling, Gibbons gave a confusing answer: “Racial profiling should be used for terrorism, if someone is coming here to deal drugs, commit crime, commit terrorist acts. If you’re going to racially profile an Irishman, then I’m going to question that. The constitution gives us all certain rights.”
Montandon said he supported profiling though it should not be racially based.
Sandoval, who was the state’s first Hispanic attorney general, said: “I have reviewed Arizona’s law, and I anticipated this question. I would support Arizona’s law. I do not support amnesty. I do not support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.”
His statement seemed to contradict what he told the Latino Lions Club in Reno — that he would consider driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
The hard line on immigration played well with the conservative crowd. But in November it will certainly be used by Reid to motivate Hispanic voters.
On education, Montandon said: “Until recently, it was illegal to pay a good teacher more than a bad teacher.”
Gibbons said, “What the state needs to be doing is getting the hell out of the way of dictating what the state needs for our kids.”
Sandoval called for, “An end to seniority and tenure. Teachers should be rewarded for being great teachers, not rewarded just for being there some amount of time.”
Ending tenure for teachers? It was an applause line on Friday.
Come November, it will be a line used to get out the teacher vote for Reid.