Republicans for governor: Three musketeers or three stooges?

The Republican race for governor figured to be interesting, if only because Jim Gibbons is involved in it.

For those just tuning in, Gibbons declared for re-election last month, striking terror into the hearts of Republican leaders who feared he saw it as the best way to meet cocktail waitresses. Two Southern Nevadans also were in the race: Joe Heck, a recently defeated state senator from Henderson, and Michael Montandon, the recently term-limited mayor of North Las Vegas.

Few know Heck or Montandon, posing a problem: Once you get outside Clark County, it’s hard to find anyone who wants to vote for someone from inside Clark County. So, if Heck and Montandon split the Republican vote down south, that would have allowed Gibbons to squeeze through the hole in the middle.

Issues weren’t the issue. No Republican in the race was likely to try to actually tax business. Chances are the Republicans’ main concerns about holding onto the governor’s mansion were over patronage appointments and redistricting, which will determine congressional and legislative districts.

This helps explain why Heck decided instead to run for the House against Dina Titus, and Republican Party leaders prevailed on Brian Sandoval to give up a lifetime appointment as a federal judge to run for governor.

If it was supposed to be easy for Sandoval, it hasn’t been. He leads in fundraising, but it’s more of a race than many could have predicted, partly because of the roles each candidate is playing.

First, Gibbons is portraying Gibbons, which appeals to those who believe any government is too much government and anyone who agrees with that is fine, no matter what an embarrassment he may be (also see Sen. John Ensign). What’s more, thanks to the worst economy since the Great Depression, Gibbons has achieved his goal of destroying as much of state government as he can, appealing to his base and appalling the logical.

Second, Sandoval seems to be playing Kenny Guinn. For decades, Republicans waited for Guinn to run. When he finally did, Guinn enjoyed strong backing from the GOP establishment. Two outsider types took him on in the primary. Guinn beat them easily enough after a few scary moments, and won the general election and re-election.

Republicans loved Guinn until he tried to drag the state into the 20th century, just in time for the 21st. He proposed taxing business, which made him a communist. Right-wingers may fear a similar fate for Sandoval, rightly or wrongly.

That brings us to Montandon, appearing in the part of Sarah Palin. Like Palin, Montandon was a mayor, meaning he faced many issues, but not as a state or federal official encounters them. So, just as Palin had no need to show Wasilla, Alaska, how right wing she actually was, Montandon now gives off a different vibe than he did as mayor.

Montandon calls himself a “movement conservative,” and is attacking Sandoval as a “liberal Republican,” which would make him the political equivalent of a woolly mammoth. Amusingly, he also charges that Sandoval “quit [his] two most recent jobs,” which makes him seem almost Palinesque, and not in a good way.

Will what each candidate is doing work? Sandoval has been running madly to the right, attacking taxes and flip-flopping on whether the attorney general should ignore the U.S. and Nevada constitutions, listen to Gibbons and sue to try to stop health-care reform. That could be wise; candidates generally feed raw meat to the base in primaries and lurch to the middle for the general election. But in doing so, Sandoval and his opponents are giving Democratic candidate Rory Reid more material for general election campaign ads than he may know what to do with.

Meanwhile, hopes spring eternal. Sandoval can hope Gibbons and Montandon split the libertarian Republicans and help him squeeze through, and that the party doesn’t place purity above victory. Gibbons and Montandon can hope anti-immigration or tea-partying Republicans tar Sandoval with the wrong brush. Montandon can hope Southern Nevada Republicans prefer not to vote for a Northerner. Gibbons can hope Republicans forget that he has been a bigger embarrassment than Ensign. And Reid can hope the winner emerges too bloodied to be a strong opponent.