WASHINGTON – Not far from the glamour and action of the famous Las Vegas Strip brews a high-stakes congressional race some say could be one of the most competitive in the country.
At the center is Republican Rep. Jon Porter (search), who has represented this district since it was carved out in 2002, a byproduct of the 2000 Census. A moderate in a district that was drawn nearly 50-50 between Democratic and Republican voters, Porter said he is eager to continue to work in an area that is infused with more than 5,000 new residents a month.
"Our major industry and revenue source is tourism, but from an issue standpoint, growth plays a major role," he told Foxnews.com. The 3rd Congressional District stretches from the south end of the Vegas Strip north, west and east into the suburbs, and encompasses Boulder City and Henderson, the latter named one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. The Las Vegas metropolitan area alone grew 85 percent in the 1990s to a population of 1.3 million by 2000.
Democrats, however, are looking to replace Porter in November. They see the freshman as vulnerable and plan on attacking him nationally, by portraying him as a "rubber stamp" for the conservative House leadership, and on local issues like Yucca Mountain (search), where they charge that Porter has not fought hard enough to keep the federal government from dumping nuclear waste there.
Fiscally conservative and a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership (search), a coalition of moderate members of Congress, Porter said he has worked hard to appeal to both sides of the aisle.
"I’ve had great cross-over support and we’re working hard," said Porter. "We didn’t stop campaigning after the last race and I plan on being re-elected."
"He lines up well with us," said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Partnership, which is pumping funds into a number of competitive moderate GOP races this year. "He’s fiscally conservative, he shares many of our same views. We think he is the best Republican for the seat — and he’s a really nice man, too."
When Porter moved to Boulder City from his home state of Idaho in 1978, this metro area barely existed. Today, he said, some 15,000 kids come into Clark County schools each year. The impact is rapid development, disappearing land opportunities and overburdened local services, like health care and schools.
Since his arrival, Porter has served as Boulder City mayor and a state senator, concentrating on ways to resolve growth issues, like making sure federal dollars were returned to Nevada more quickly in order to accommodate the explosion in school populations, and build on existing hospital and nursing facilities.
But construction worker and Democratic grassroots activist Rick DeVoe says Nevadans also must look at the big picture. Running in the August primary for the party’s nomination to challenge Porter, DeVoe said, in part, this election will be a mandate on Republican President Bush’s policies, which he believes have failed Nevadans and the rest of the country.
"The Gore campaign didn’t listen to Nevada in 2000. Bush misled us and we shouldn’t let him get away with it this time," he said. The 3rd District voted for former Vice President Al Gore over Bush in 2000, 49 percent to 48 percent.
Party establishment types appear to be lining up behind former casino executive Tom Gallagher (search), however. Gallagher announced March 19 his intention to run in the Democratic primary. The district demands a big personality and deep pockets for the expensive Las Vegas media market, and supporters say Gallagher is the man to do it.
"Tom has such a strong background in business," said Sean Sinclair, spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is campaigning for Gallagher. He pointed to Gallagher’s last job, which was CEO of Park Place Entertainment from 2000 to 2002, running the flagship Caesar’s Palace, Bally’s and Flamingo Casinos in Las Vegas. Before that, he was executive vice president of Hilton Hotels Corp.
"To me, there is a very stark choice, but I am not going to run a negative campaign," Gallagher told Foxnews.com. "But most importantly, I want to be a very active, independent voice for the people of my district."
Gallagher acknowledged the challenges that rapid growth has brought to the area — he lives in Henderson — and said he would like to use his administrative acumen to its greatest advantage.
"I understand the issues from a distinct perspective," he said.
Analysts say Porter and the Democratic nominee will no doubt have some hefty help from Washington. Already, Vice President Dick Cheney has come into the 3rd District to fund-raise for Porter, who had nearly $500,000 in the bank at the end of 2003.
"Porter is a freshman congressman who Republicans here in D.C. realize may need assistance and people are keeping an eye on him, helping him raise money for re-election," said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report (search). "Gallagher – he’ll have a lot of ground to make up as far as getting known."
Meanwhile, Porter has been working to shore up confidence in his work in Washington, holding hearings on Yucca Mountain in February, and announcing a new initiative against drugged driving in March.
"No one works harder than I do and plan to do as a member of Congress," he said. "I like campaigning, I’ve been campaigning for almost 20 years, and I have great bipartisan support in southern Nevada."