Dina Titus and Ruben Kihuen compete for US House seat

LAS VEGAS - Former Nevada Rep. Dina Titus set the stage Thursday for a brutal U.S. House primary against state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, casting herself as the more experienced Democrat and refusing to cede the Hispanic vote to her Mexican-born challenger.

Titus said she will run against Kihuen in Nevada's 1st Congressional District next year under new voter boundaries that must be approved by the Nevada Supreme Court later this month. The district is more than 40 percent Hispanic and largely Democratic, ensuring that whoever wins the primary will likely win the general election and a seat in Washington.

"This is definitely my home," Titus said, staking her claim to the district. "District One needs someone with a proven record."

The announcement sets the stage for a divisive contest that could influence the presidential race next year, particularly if Titus wins and Hispanic voters are encouraged to sit the general election out. That's the worst case scenario some Democratic leaders are painting as they urge Titus to reconsider a tough primary battle and instead reclaim her former seat. Her decision has also infuriated some Hispanic leaders who view Kihuen as the state's best hope at electing its first Hispanic to Congress.

Titus downplayed the tensions when pressed about the ramifications of her decision but acknowledged, "Ruben's not too crazy about it."

Kihuen, who had campaigned as Titus' Hispanic surrogate in her three previous elections, said he was disappointed, but would not back down. He immediately sought to portray Titus as a fair-weather friend to Latino voters and a career politician out of touch with Nevada's economic woes. The message was reinforced by some of the state's most prominent Hispanic leaders, who gathered Thursday at the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas hours after Titus' announcement to discredit her candidacy.

"We had to pressure her to vote for the Dream Act, we had to pressure her to vote for immigration reform," Kihuen said. "Hispanics should vote for someone who represents their interests."

The personal jabs are to be expected in a contest between two Democrats with similar backgrounds and ideologies. Titus and Kihuen both support legal abortion, health care reform, public education and other stalwart issues associated with the Democratic party. Kihuen, when asked how his record in Congress would differ from Titus,' only said he would have co-sponsored immigration reform, while Titus merely voted for it. Titus, meanwhile, slammed Kihuen for agreeing to a state budget that cut public school dollars.

Titus' campaign has been hinting for days that she would challenge Kihuen. She was elected to represent a different southern Nevada district in 2008 but lost it to Republican Rep. Joe Heck after one term. It's Nevada's only swing House district, with slightly more Democrats than Republicans.

Titus said she would help national Democrats defeat Heck next year but did not want to face him again at the polls. Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, a Democrat, is expected to challenge Heck.

"I am not afraid of Joe Heck ... but this is my home," Titus said. "It doesn't have anything to do with who is an easier opponent."

Titus' remarks came during a campaign event at a low-income housing complex bearing her name. Union officials, campaign volunteers and state Democratic leaders were among the dozens of supporters gathered at the event in a nod to Titus' long political career in Nevada and deep Rolodex. Both could afford her an advantage over Kihuen, a popular lawmaker who, nevertheless, has collected few legislative accomplishments since he was elected to the state Senate last year.

Titus, however, is far from invincible. She lost a 2006 gubernatorial bid and some political strategists attributed her 2008 election to the House to President Barack Obama's expansive voter outreach that year. Persuading Hispanics to vote against one of the state's most visible Latino organizers could also prove difficult, especially if Kihuen's campaign succeeds in painting Titus as a spoiler.

"We have a great opportunity to elect the first Hispanic from Nevada, an opportunity that might not come again for a number of years," said Otto Merida, the president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce. "I know for many people owning a house is the American Dream. For us, Ruben is our American Dream."

Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, said Titus is not only threatening Kihuen's campaign, she could also cost Democrats their best opportunity at winning back Heck's seat. Under the proposed voter boundaries, the district will lean slightly more Democratic.

"It's an affront," Romero said. "She didn't have the moxie to go back and fight a second round with someone she should have beaten."

Titus said she can win over Hispanic voters by pointing to an established record in Congress, where she voted for the Democrat-backed health care law and pushed for foreclosure reform.

"I am the only candidate in the district who has voted for the Dream Act," Titus told The Associated Press, referring to the failed effort to help children of illegal immigrants become legal residents.

Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin, a Hispanic Titus supporter, predicted the primary will be a close contest that will focus on issues, not ethnicity.

"The Latinos don't vote for race," he said.


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