Seated at the far end of a long conference table, in a room of dark wood and plush carpet that symbolizes a successful law practice, Grant Sawyer launched into a familiar complaint against the "Washington establishment" that seems perpetually at odds with the fiercely independent states of the mountain and desert West.
"I want to express our distaste for the wholesale sellout of Nevada" to a handful of people who live almost 3,000 miles away, he said. Good people, some of Nevada's best, were "pushed aside, humiliated and embarrassed" by this clique of "Washington-based dictators," Sawyer continued.
Meanwhile, he said, a small army of well-heeled political operatives "have swarmed into our state from the Potomac" to impose their views on Nevada's proudly independent citizenry.
Another conservative Republican assault from the West on the faceless federal bureacracy in Washington? Not exactly. Instead, this is an opening salvo in what promises to be one of the most hotly contested political races of the year, a no-holds-barred, western-style family feud to decide the successor to Nevada's retiring senior senator, Republican Paul Laxalt.
Sawyer is a former Democratic governor of Nevada and the state's Democratic national committeeman. The "Washington establishment" he assailed is not the federal government but the Republican National Committee. His list of "Washington-based dictators" includes the RNC's general chairman, Laxalt, and the RNC's operating chairman, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, another Nevadan and Laxalt protege.
But his real target is former Democratic congressman-turned-Republican Jim Santini, whom he depicts as "a political opportunist" who has launched "a carpetbagging candidacy" for the Senate at the behest of Laxalt, Fahrenkopf and other "arrogant" GOP power-brokers in the nation's distant capital.
As Sawyer spoke, the formal 1986 Nevada Senate campaign was exactly two hours old.
Between now and November, the race promises to get even hotter as both parties pour millions of dollars and other precious resources -- most notably President Reagan on the Republican side -- into a contest that could determine control of the Senate.
Santini, 48, is a former four-term Democratic congressman who switched party registration to Republican last August, shortly after Laxalt made the surprise announcement that he would not seek reelection. Visibly nervous as he formally announced his GOP Senate candidacy, Santini said last week that he switched parties because to remain a Democrat would have forced him "to change my principles and abandon my convictions."
He quoted the president as telling him, " 'Better a change of parties, Jim, than a change of principles.' "
His opponent in November will be Rep. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), 46, a soft-spoken, one-time "boy wonder" of Nevada politics who lost a race for the Senate against Laxalt in 1974 by 624 votes.
At this point, both sides call the Reid-Santini contest a tossup, with the most recent polls giving the Democrat about a 5 percent lead. But for Nevada to be in the "tossup" category is itself a sign of trouble in the Republicans' quest to retain their lead, now 53 to 47, over the Democrats in the Senate.
With 22 GOP Senate seats at stake, this was destined to be a tough year for Republicans. Nevada added to the burdens of national Republican strategists when it was suddenly transformed from a safe GOP bastion that could largely be ignored into another expensive battleground for control of the Senate.
This was the doing of Laxalt, "best friend" of the president and the state's dominant political figure for much of the last decade. The affable, gentlemanly Laxalt, who is credited even by Democrats for a vast improvement in the image of Nevada as the home of gamblers, chorus girls and not much else, was considered all but unbeatable. Reid has said he would not be running this year if his old foe were seeking a third term.
Even without Laxalt, Nevada is fertile ground for the Republicans, who have in the newly converted Santini a proved campaigner who won four statewide races when Nevada's small population would support only one congressional district. His only statewide loss occurred in a bitter 1982 Democratic primary against then-Sen. Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.), who was then defeated in the general election by Chic Hecht, a Republican.
Over the last 20 years, especially the last decade, Republicans have made major gains in voter registration here and are now approaching parity with the Democrats. But even these gains do not fully reflect the growing conservatism of the state, which has become a haven for retirees attracted by Nevada's low tax rates. When voter attitudes are measured, according to Wayne Pearson, a University of Nevada at Las Vegas faculty member who conducts polls for Laxalt, "Nevada has tipped over; it's really a Republican state."
So Santini began his campaign with certain strengths, including assurances of generous financing, the strong support of the popular Laxalt and at least two campaign appearances by Reagan. Moreover, Laxalt argues that, contrary to conventional political wisdom in Washington that the 1986 off-year elections will be a series of local skirmishes, there is an "overriding national theme" that will benefit Santini and other GOP candidates, especially in the prospering Sun Belt states.
"Nevadans are doing very well, they are content and they love Reagan," he said.
True enough, but there are also clear signs of trouble for Republicans here that have put this race firmly in the tossup category.
When a poll last fall showed Reid with only a 5 percent lead over Santini, said a Nevada political analyst who asked not to be identified, "I thought that was not very good." Considering that Santini had been out of public life for three years, spending the bulk of his time in the Washington office of a Reno law firm, he said, "I figured Santini could overtake him easily."
"I'm not so sure any more," the analyst continued. "Nevada is a state where personal considerations are very important. Harry Reid is very good at establishing, maintaining and nurturing personal relationships. I've talked to a lot of Republicans who idolize Ronald Reagan and Paul Laxalt but who say they will vote for Harry Reid."
The Democrats sense this, moving immediately to exploit the perceived weaknesses of the GOP candidate. They were aided in this effort by questions surrounding a Federal Election Commission inquiry into about $14,000 in 1982 campaign contributions to Santini. The contributions were reported returned to the donors, who mysteriously have not cashed the refund checks.
The Santini candidacy has united Nevada Democrats, bitter over his 1982 primary challenge to Cannon, around Reid. One sign of this was the presence in Sawyer's office of Charles Waterman, the Clark County (Las Vegas) Democratic chairman, a self-described "old-style" liberal who has often feuded with the more conservative former governor.
"I know Jim Santini the man," said Waterman, suggesting that this was explanation enough for his election-year truce with Sawyer.
"The Democrats appear to be more united than they've ever been," said Ace Robinson, Laxalt's top aide who has returned to Nevada to manage the Santini campaign.
There is also a certain amount of turmoil in the Nevada GOP that is linked to the Santini candidacy and those prominent Nevadans that Sawyer said have been "pushed aside, humiliated and embarrassed."
Part of this stems from the perception -- denied by all involved -- that Laxalt and others forced Rep. Barbara F. Vucanovich (R-Nev.), who represents all of Nevada except Reid's House district around Las Vegas, out of a possible Senate race after national GOP polls showed Santini to be the stronger candidate.
In a second incident, Laxalt and other Nevada party leaders informed Marilyn Gubler, the state GOP chairman, that they did not want her to stand for reelection at the state Republican convention in May. Gubler, in the Las Vegas lexicon, promptly "upped the ante" by resigning two months before the convention. She dutifully showed up at the Santini announcement last week, but when asked if she would campaign for the GOP candidate said, "I don't know yet. I'll certainly vote for him."
So Reid, too, begins the campaign with strengths, including a moderate voting record that will not easily allow Santini to tag him as a tool of "eastern liberals and labor bosses," which is the Republican description of the hated "Washington establishment."
"I am telling the people of Nevada, which has a history of strong senators, to look for someone who is independent, someone who is consistent," said the two-term congressman and former lieutenant governor.
It is a big state with a sparse population, where the politicians know each other's strengths and weaknesses and call each other by first names. The Reid-Santini contest has the look of a family fight, which can be the nastiest kind when the stakes are high.
"It's going to be a tough, bloody battle," Robinson said.