Does he need values?

Republicans have lived off “values” voters for years, and now a leading GOP candidate is challenged on values issues

Republican candidate for governor Jim Gibbons is struggling to hold onto his lead in the race amid recurrent bad news.

Republican candidate for governor Jim Gibbons is struggling to hold onto his lead in the race amid recurrent bad news.

Photo By David Robert

Jim Gibbons was walking a drunken woman to her car in a parking garage so she could drive away.

Jim Gibbons propositioned the woman, and assaulted her when she resisted.

Jim Gibbons employed an illegal alien as a housekeeper.

Jim Gibbons used his influence to aid a crony’s software company.

Or so it is claimed, though independent substantiating material is available only on the immigration and influence matters.

The charges have reverberated through Nevada’s political world, raising character issues and undercutting Republican Gibbons’ standing as a candidate of moral values.

Las Vegas Review-Journal editor Sherman Frederick argued that the voters to whom values are important will still vote for Gibbons because they “have nowhere else to go.”

In fact, voters do have somewhere else to go—voters disappointed in Gibbons and in disagreement with Democrat Dina Titus can stay home. They can skip the governor’s race if they do vote. Scandal-type revelations often depress turnout. (With voters taking a second look at Titus, her campaign was cutting new television spots to try to redefine her away from the Gibbons portrait of her.)

Las Vegas CityLife editor Steve Sebelius disputes Frederick’s view that Gibbons was ever a values candidate in the first place: “[E]xactly when did Gibbons become a darling of ‘values voters'? First, he’s cast votes against banning gay marriage (before he voted for a ban on gay marriage). Second, he’s been cagey about what his true religion is (up until four years ago, guidebooks listed him as “Protestant,” until he switched to “Mormon"). Third, even if he really is Mormon, he’s not a very good one, drinking wine with Rogich and donors … on the infamous night in question. And then there’s the whole plagiarizing a (really bad) speech, the rhetorical equivalent of theft. … There’s the fact that he would embrace pro-choice policies, although his personal beliefs may tend toward the pro-life.”

In a sense, it may help Gibbons now if voters did not previously consider Gibbons a values candidate. They may not be as disappointed in him by the immigration and drunk driving allegations as they would be in a candidate with a stronger values identification.

If he needs to, can he win without values voters?

An ABC/Washington Post survey this month showed values have declined as an important issue to voters compared to the economy and terrorism. Gay marriage and abortion, for instance, were big issues to only 2 percent of the sample.

DePauw University communications professor Ken Bode, a former CNN and NBC political reporter and moderator of Washington Week in Review, says the importance of “values voters” was exaggerated after the 2004 election when they were credited with giving George Bush his margin of victory, an assessment that did not stand up under later analysis of the votes.

“What the Nevada situation speaks to is less values issues than something that all voters—values oriented or otherwise—can understand,” Bode said. “It’s like Mark Foley trolling for kids on the Internet. You don’t need to be part of any category to react to it.”

He said he experienced an indication this week of the agenda being set on the campaign trail. “I was polled last night by the Peter Hart organization. They were doing a survey on our local congressional race. Not a single question was about values. It was all economy and Iraq and security.”

He did say that if candidates posture—as Gibbons did on immigration—and then are hit with unfavorable news that conflicts with that posturing, it can be twice as damaging.

On the other hand, one sign that Gibbons may be hurting on values issues is that, if online postings are any indication, ordinary folks are looking at different things in the now-famous Friday the 13th incident than reporters did. While journalists focused more on the racy allegations of flirting and assault, many Nevadans thought a different issue was more important:

“Why would Jim Gibbons let a person drinking and not able to remain standing drive?”

“I would like to know why an elected official, running for the office for governor of Nevada, would be ‘helping’ an intoxicated person to their car?”

“If Gibbons claims that Chrissy was so drunk that she stumbled, why would he supposedly walk a drunk ‘lady’ to find and drive a truck?”

Those are postings from a television station site.

Las Vegas police quoted Gibbons as saying, “She might have been tipsy. She didn’t walk in a straight line. That’s for sure.” Nine days after police said he made that statement, he denied making it.

But in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, he basically confirmed that he knew she’d been drinking, even as he trivialized its importance: “I only saw her for a very short time and she had a glass or two of wine, so I had no idea of what had happened before she came and sat down at our table.”

Driving after drinking “a glass or two of wine” is generally regarded as drunken driving. Warnings that small amounts of drinking constitute drunken driving have been a staple of highly visible anti-drunken driving public service campaigns.

The Go Ask Alice campaign uses material stating, “Remember that even one drink can impair your motor skills and judgment, the two things you need most to drive safely.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” campaign that has gotten a lot of television time.

When Gibbons was a member of the Nevada Legislature, the drunken driving law was already in place, but he did vote for a measure that made even riding while drinking also illegal. The measure raised concern about whether people could incur liability by volunteering to be designated drivers for inebriated passengers.

The sudden appearance of videotapes supposedly taken on the night of the drunk driving incident introduced another new factor, but one that may not quiet the concerns of values voters. The things that Gibbons had already admitted remain troubling for many voters. In one setback for the candidate, an RG-J poll last week showed Gibbons with only a six-point lead, and survey was taken before the illegal alien charges surfaced. (One puzzling note was introduced this week, when Gibbons said, “The tapes will verify that I was never in the garage,” even though he had previously said he was in the garage.)

Such surveys are becoming less meaningful because they are unable to reflect the effect on voters of the fast-breaking new developments in the governor’s race.