Thursday, Dec. 30, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
Nevada was a political afterthought for Republicans in the 2008 presidential election.
Caucus votes were nonbinding, meaning delegates could change their minds about whom to support, so candidates focused on other more influential states rather than risk wasting time and money in Nevada.
But that strategy seems to be changing, with the state GOP deciding to make caucus votes binding. Now that Nevada can boast real political juice, Republicans toying with the idea of presidential bids are scoping out the Silver State.
An advance man for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich dropped into Las Vegas this month to meet with Republican and conservative players, gauge the strength of the state GOP and try to anticipate what a primary might bring. Gregg Phillips, a software company owner from Texas and close friend of Gingrich, spoke to Republicans and schmoozed at a happy hour for conservatives and libertarians. (Gingrich won a presidential straw poll conducted at the gathering.)
“If the speaker decides to step into the race, he wants to do so with the full knowledge that he understands how the people of Nevada, of South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa feel about the values he believes in,” Phillips said later. “Should he announce that he’s interested, Nevada would be one of the most important states on his list, where he will not only spend time but money.”
Early Republican front-runner Mitt Romney will swing through Nevada in February to address the International Franchise Association during its annual convention at the MGM Grand. Most people on the shortlist of 2012 Republican candidates made Nevada appearances before the November election (Gingrich, Romney and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin all came through), to support the Republican slate, but also to forge local relationships that could later help their campaigns.
Leading up to the 2008 election, Romney was the only candidate who put serious effort into campaigning in Nevada. It paid off; he won the Republican caucus with slightly more than half the votes despite a crowded field of contenders. Ron Paul worked at a ground game, too, but he relied mostly on volunteers, whereas Romney paid a staff and hired local consultants.
Arizona Sen. John McCain also worked with consultants in Nevada, but ultimately focused on South Carolina. When Nevada’s caucus landed on the same day as the South Carolina primary, McCain headed to the Bible Belt. Unlike Nevada’s 34 delegates, South Carolina’s 24 delegates made a binding decision.
Next time, so will Republicans in Nevada, after party officials decided this month to prohibit delegates from switching their votes at the Republican National Convention. That makes Nevada a key state for GOP hopefuls, as candidates can count on the state’s votes to push them closer to a nomination.
The party set Feb. 18, 2012, as the caucus date (the same day as the Democrats’), making Nevada the third Republican contest nationally and the first in the West. Members chose a proportional system, rather than winner-takes-all.
That works against Romney, who is an early favorite, but is good for Nevada because it will raise the state’s profile and attract big names who bring with them money and clout. Democrats employed a similar system in 2008, and it quickly propelled Nevada onto the national stage. Candidates streamed through the state, partially because of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s influence, and money poured in, helping to solidify the infrastructure he created — and the presidential hopefuls needed.
“The more competitive it is, the more interest you’ll see, the more infrastructure you can leave on the ground and the more long-term benefit to Nevada,” said Robert Uithoven, a Republican consultant who advised McCain in 2008.
Campaigns likely won’t kick off until after next year’s legislative session because state legislators, who are important advocates for presidential candidates, will be busy closing the budget deficit and redrawing district lines.
Although Romney appears to have an early lead, it is no foregone conclusion he will take the state. The fact that he was among the only candidates to take a real interest in Nevada last cycle likely played a big role in his landslide victory.
A recent poll of Republican primary voters showed Romney with a lead, but not an insurmountable one. The survey by Public Policy Polling found Romney earning 34 percent of votes, compared with Gingrich’s 21 percent. Palin took third, with 16 percent, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee trailed with 11 percent.
Romney has an established base and organization — his 2008 supporters, including Rep.-elect Joe Heck and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki — but Gingrich has people on the ground, too, namely the staff of American Promises, his citizen action group. Add to that mix Palin’s name recognition and her Tea Party ties, and Nevada is in line to see plenty of GOP action.