LAS VEGAS -- Lieutenant governor candidate Lucy Flores touted herself as a champion of struggling everyday voters while opponent Mark Hutchison sold himself as a living example of the American dream during the first debate of one of the most-watched races in the Nevada midterm elections.
Flores, a Democrat, and Hutchison, a Republican, squared off Wednesday in a crowded Las Vegas Mexican restaurant for a debate hosted by the Hispanics in Politics organization. While the 80-minute forum was relatively scripted and sparring was minimal, the candidates slipped in a few jabs.
"My opponent — he represents the status quo," Flores said. "I'm here to represent everyday Nevadans, and he's here to represent his corporate friends."
The scrappy Flores, 34, has drawn national press coverage after leaving behind life in a gang, earning a law degree and winning a state Assembly seat. Hutchison, 51, is a lawyer and state senator who enjoys the support of popular Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, but opponents have criticized him as wealthy and out of touch with poor families.
"I know what it's like to put a pair of boots on in the morning, carry a lunch pail, work your guts out all day and then go to school at night," Hutchison said. "I will not apologize for living the American dream."
Lieutenant governor is a largely ceremonial, part-time job. But it's getting extra attention this year because the winner would take the governor's seat if it becomes vacant midterm. Sandoval is expected to coast to re-election in November, and there's wide speculation that he would run against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2016.
Wednesday's debate touched on topics pertinent to the lieutenant governor's duties, which include chairing the Nevada Commission on Tourism and keeping order as president of the state Senate.
But the liveliest portion involved questions more appropriate for governor candidates.
On education, Hutchison touted Sandoval's targeted school funding measures, including $50 million for English language learners and class-size reduction in lower grades. Flores criticized the measures as inadequate in light of Nevada's drastic school funding cuts during the recession.
On taxes, both candidates opposed The Education Initiative, a teacher union-backed ballot measure that would impose a tax on businesses' gross revenues. Hutchison said the tax would drive businesses to other states, and argued that Republicans in the state Legislature had proposed a better alternative — a tax on mining. Flores dismissed the mining tax proposal as a game that "wasn't going anywhere," but said she wouldn't support the so-called margins tax because "it doesn't restructure, and we need to restructure the whole system."
On immigration, Hutchison said he supports comprehensive immigration reform and spoke in favor of the measure on the state Senate floor. Flores said a comprehensive measure is being "stalled in the House by Republican obstructionism," and called on Hutchison to support emergency executive branch measures, such as extending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Moderator Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, said his group was honored to host the first debate. He said the candidates' participation was a nod to the influence of Hispanics, who make up about one-quarter of the state's population and are an increasingly important voting bloc.
"I don't take Latino support for granted. ... I work hard for this community because I know what it's like to be underrepresented," said Flores, who occasionally broke out into Spanish during the forum. "Unlike my opponent, I didn't just recently discover this community because I decided to run for office."
Hutchison hit back, saying he's been a faithful supporter of the Latino community since entering politics in 2012.
"I've been consistent," he said. "My views haven't changed."