Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Conservative activists, operatives and officeholders are anxious about John McCain’s Nevada campaign, fearing the Arizona senator lacks the ground operation and commitment to win Nevada.
Concern grew last week after McCain canceled a Nevada visit. A new Reno Gazette-Journal poll showed McCain trailing by 7 percentage points, with Democratic challenger Sen. Barack Obama competing in traditional Republican strongholds here.
“People I talk to wonder where the campaign is,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist who regularly speaks to dozens of other conservatives — north and south — through his newsletter.
State Sen. Warren Hardy said Nevada Republicans and McCain are generating plenty of excitement and volunteers. But Hardy said Republicans face too many competitive races across the state, draining the pool of available campaign volunteers. Republicans are in tough races to retain control of the state Senate, and U.S. Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller face strong challenges from state Sen. Dina Titus and Jill Derby, respectively.
McCain campaign spokesman Rick Gorka said the organization recently added two offices in Clark County and one up north, for a total of nine statewide. He said Nevada volunteers often make more voter contacts in a day than volunteers in other election battleground states.
“To suggest we’re doing anything but competing hard in Nevada is ridiculous,” Gorka said.
McCain has not been to Nevada since the Republican convention in early September. His last visit to Las Vegas was Aug. 9. Obama has been to the state three times since then, including twice since the Democratic convention.
Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, McCain’s state chairman, said he expects return visits by the candidate or vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
“The McCain-Palin campaign believes Nevada is important,” Krolicki said. “The machinery of the campaign is growing.”
Sig Rogich, the Nevada Republican operative and McCain consultant, said McCain “is as committed to Nevada as ever.”
“Both campaigns have canceled political events for many different reasons. It doesn’t mean he’s dismissing Nevada,” Rogich said. “McCain will be here.”
The McCain camp won’t say how many paid staff members are here. Rogich said he did not know the exact size of that staff, but said it is “close to 30.”
The Obama campaign has about 100 paid staff members in the state.
A few Republican operatives, who declined to be named, offered blunt criticism.
The McCain campaign is “a joke,” one said. “There’s not a campaign in Nevada. A couple of guys, running around, being incompetent. Or even worse, arrogantly incompetent.”
The consultant said there was no discernible McCain ground game, which is political jargon for the massive effort needed to find likely supporters and get them to the polls.
He did hedge a bit, saying that if some earth-shattering event were to occur, McCain could still win in Nevada. Otherwise: “There’s not one single positive note for Republicans. I couldn’t be more pessimistic.”
The gloom is not surprising, given national polls showing Obama opening a lead and McCain playing defense in traditionally Republican states, which had included Nevada until Democratic registration drives have given the party an advantage of 80,000 voters.
Asked what he would say to disheartened Republicans, Rogich said: “These things go in peaks and valleys.” A few points in McCain’s direction would mean a dead-heat and a changed race, he said.
Greg Ferraro, a longtime Republican consultant who helped elect Gov. Jim Gibbons, said 26 days is a lot of time in a presidential contest, but added McCain needs to find a “point of connection” to persuade Nevadans he can lead them out of the economic morass. “There’s time, but it’s precious time,” Ferraro said.
Most worrisome to Nevada Republicans is their perception that McCain’s organization compares badly to the 2004 effort to reelect President Bush. Republican consultant Ryan Erwin defended the McCain team, though he acknowledged the difference from 2004.
Muth said the McCain campaign solicited him for volunteers. No dice, he told them. Muth had invited McCain or a high-level surrogate to attend a conservative conference in Las Vegas. The campaign declined — via snail mail — after the event.
Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada, Reno political scientist and registered Republican, said, “Obama’s organization is evident everywhere. The McCain — and even Republican Party — activity just pales in comparison.”
Herzik said his two sons, both Republicans younger than 25, received mail pieces addressed to them from the Obama campaign despite the “R” next to their names on registration lists.
McCain is also being outspent in Nevada nearly 2-to-1. Obama spent $616,000 to McCain’s $329,000 on TV ads for the week ending Oct. 4, according to Sun partner Politico.
Obama blanketed the state with high-level surrogates this week, including Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will appear Friday.
On the Republican side, former New York Gov. George Pataki showed up at McCain headquarters to fire up about 25 volunteers in a phone bank room. “It is very encouraging to see all of you out working like this,” he said.
Steve Spindel, an active volunteer, praised the McCain staff and said they were operating a “well-oiled machine.”