Monday, Jan. 14, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The sight of several dozen Ron Paul supporters marching up the Strip on Saturday may be about as exciting as it gets among the Republican presidential campaigns in advance of Saturday’s party caucuses in Nevada.
And Paul, a conservative Texas congressman, didn’t even show up for the march and a later rally at appropriately Texas Station that included a Texas hold ’em poker tournament in his honor.
With the party’s poll-leading presidential candidates focusing on Tuesday’s contest in Michigan and on Saturday’s more important Republican primary in South Carolina, Nevada’s role in the Republican race for the White House has been marginalized.
The Republicans’ general dismissal of Nevada contrasts strongly with the Democrats, who are pouring money and out-of-state campaign workers into Nevada to lend support in the pitched competition this week between New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
The only apparent activity in Nevada among the Republicans has sprung from the campaigns of Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, each of whom have dispatched staff members here but aren’t planning any TV ads in Las Vegas or Reno.
With an expected Republican caucus turnout of just 30,000 to 40,000, “I can’t believe it’s a good investment,” said Ryan Erwin, a Nevada consultant to Romney.
Paul, who has a strong volunteer base here, appeared at a rally in Pahrump on Sunday night and is to appear in Reno today and in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
Romney’s plans in Nevada hinge largely on how he fares in Tuesday’s critical primary in Michigan a state where his late father, George Romney, was governor.
And once the Michigan primary is over, the Republican attention will turn to South Carolina, whose primary on Saturday is more important to the party than the Nevada caucus that day.
“The fact that Nevada and South Carolina are on the same day, it’s tough to split time between the two states,” said Robert Uithoven, a Nevada adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary. “They’re 2,500 miles apart.”
Party insiders see South Carolina as a bellwether for the Bible Belt it’s the state that, in 2000, tripped up McCain and now appears receptive to Baptist populist Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucus, the nation’s first contest. And unlike with the 34-delegate Nevada caucus, the 24 delegates awarded to the winner of the South Carolina primary are binding.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Huckabee and McCain are long shots to visit Nevada this week. Huckabee has a bone-thin staff nationally and is barely rooted in Nevada. Giuliani, who had been the national frontrunner among Republicans, is sticking to his unorthodox campaign strategy: relentlessly canvassing Florida, which has the most delegates of any caucus or primary this month, over the other early states a gamble that has yielded early momentum to his rivals.
“Giuliani was never going to establish a real organization and do real campaigning in any of the primary and caucus states leading up to Feb. 5 except for Florida,” said Steve Wark, communications director for the Nevada caucus. Among the big states holding their contests on Feb. 5 Super Tuesday are California, New Jersey and New York states Giuliani is polling well in.
McCain initially intended to campaign in Nevada, but a money crunch in mid-2007 prompted him to adopt “a state-by-state strategy dictated by the resources the campaign has,” Uithoven said. Also, McCain’s push for immigration reform in 2005 proved unpopular with Republicans in the Silver State.
If McCain in Michigan duplicates the results of the New Hampshire primary and edges Romney, some observers suspect that could force the former Massachusetts governor to visit Nevada to help resuscitate his campaign.
“I think it’s crucial for him to do well in Michigan,” Erwin said of Romney. Regardless, “We expect to win Nevada. We’ve been working on this for eight months.”
In the limited polls conducted of likely Republican caucus voters, Romney and Giuliani have been neck-and-neck. Paul hasn’t polled well here, but he has the largest Republican organization in the state with 11 full-time staffers. Romney has the second-most with five and one consultant.
“Literally 99 percent of participants in the Republican caucus have never participated,” Wark said. “You have to wonder if organization will trump popularity.”
If so, that could benefit Paul, whom supporters describe in messianic tones. Party insiders expect only the most informed and active Republican voters will turn out Saturday morning to caucus.
Besides employing the largest staff in Nevada, Paul has transcended his early Internet-only stardom: The staunch libertarian appears to have the most eclectic and fervent followers in Nevada of all the Republican candidates.
They said they were happy to get out from behind their computers to march on Saturday.
“We were chanting: ‘We’re not just the Internet. We’re flesh and blood,’” said Danielle Zuliani, 34, of Los Angeles.
From there, supporters moved to a far-too-large ballroom at the Texas Station casino for a celebration of their hero with music techno-inspired and country-flavored.
For many, it was the first time they were in a room with like-minded Americans; several said they had felt ostracized in recent years opposing the war in Iraq and promoting government decentralization, which would include abolishing the federal Department of Education.
“I was moved by seeing Ron Paul saying what I felt. Despite the fact that they didn’t want to hear it the neocons, Bush administration, the warmongers if you want peace, you don’t have to enforce peace around the world,” said Jesse Kooney, 31, of Santa Barbara County, Calif.