RENO, Nev. — Nevada's race for governor was barely a contest at all until it took a scandalous turn a few weeks ago, when a cocktail waitress accused Rep. Jim Gibbons of trying to sexually assault her in a parking garage after a night of drinking just off the Las Vegas Strip.
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The lurid allegations in the closing weeks of the campaign have put the race back in play and put the one-time Republican front-runner on the defensive. Policy issues have taken a back seat to dueling news conferences, a burgeoning criminal investigation and a mystery over what exactly is on the parking garage's surveillance video.
Gibbons, a conservative five-term congressman from Reno and the only member in the House to have served in both the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, had held a nine-point lead in September over liberal Democrat Dina Titus, a state lawmaker and political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In a possible measure of how much damage the scandal has done, President Bush is headed to Nevada for the second time in a month, with a speech scheduled Thursday in Gibbons' solidly Republican congressional district.
"Certainly the race must be tighter than they anticipated because it should have been a cakewalk ... for Gibbons, and now we have the president coming to Elko," said Fred Lokken, a Republican and political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.
It was three weeks before Election Day when 32-year-old Chrissy Mazzeo made three 911 calls after leaving a Las Vegas restaurant where she had been drinking with a friend, the married congressman, his top adviser and others. Alternately breathless and laughing, the single mother who recently left the Wynn Las Vegas hotel-casino to work at the Bellagio hotel-casino told police that Gibbons grabbed her arms and tried to force himself on her.
Gibbons told police it didn't happen. He said he walked Mazzeo toward her truck and helped her catch her balance after she tripped at the garage entrance. At a news conference with his wife at his side, he insisted he had behaved like "an officer and a gentleman."
Mazzeo dropped the complaint the day after the alleged incident and told police it was because she did not want to start a media circus and "because of who he is."
Pressure and threats?
But last week, Mazzeo, having retained a lawyer, called a news conference to claim she was threatened, pressured and offered money through an intermediary to change her story. Mazzeo said the intermediary was a friend who told her her life was in danger and "if you don't drop this, Chrissy, they will kill you, your baby and your family."
Gibbons called the remarks defamatory and outrageous. Gibbons' lawyer, Don Campbell, called her an "exceedingly troubled young lady," and her friend, a Republican who had been part of the group in the bar, said "she needs to strongly consider seeking professional help."
When Mazzeo initially dropped her complaint, police said there was not enough evidence a crime was committed, largely because there were no witnesses and video surveillance cameras in the parking garage were not working. More than a week later, though, the company that owns the garage said it turned the tapes over to the police.
Police haven't disclosed what is on them, saying only that there were approximately 25 different camera angles and that it may take days to determine whether Mazzeo or Gibbons appear on the tapes.
Gibbons won a judge's ruling Tuesday ordering the release of the videotapes that he said would prove he never touched the woman. The tapes were ordered released to attorneys for Gibbons and Mazzeo; the footage was not immediately made public.
"As I have done throughout my entire public career and with the truth on my side, I will put my trust and confidence in the fair minds of Nevada's voters," Gibbons said.
Meanwhile, the police department, under Sheriff Bill Young, who supports Gibbons, has reopened its investigation.
A poll published Friday showed Gibbons with 47 percent and Titus with 41 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The poll of 600 likely voters in the state's four most populous counties was conducted after the allegations were first reported but before Mazzeo held her news conference.
Some critics say that even if the allegations are overblown, Gibbons showed poor judgment by walking a single woman who had been drinking to her car and by taking part in what witnesses said was a loud and "flirty" evening in the bar.
In endorsing Titus, the Reno Gazette-Journal said the allegations amounted to a "he-said, she-said match with no witnesses" and "appear out of character for Gibbons."
Titus has not made Mazzeo's accusations a campaign issue, instead blaming Gibbons for record deficit spending in Congress and portraying him as a puppet of the Bush administration.
But Gibbons' lawsuit for the videos says the Mazzeo allegations have damaged his campaign and turned people to vote for Titus.
He also told police the incident had another effect.
"I have to admit that, gosh, I learned an important lesson - never to offer a helping hand to anybody ever again," he said.
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