Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Sheldon Adelson’s vast wealth has been a life raft for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid.
The Las Vegas casino mogul and his wife have contributed $10 million to the political action committee supporting Gingrich, sustaining his campaign long enough for him to ride momentum from his resounding victory in South Carolina into Florida.
As the campaign heads to Nevada later this week, Adelson could be worth more than just money to his old friend.
“Adelson has an ability to actually work a ground game in Nevada, whereas in South Carolina and Florida it was really about funding the airwaves,” said one operative familiar with Adelson’s political activity. “He can do more than that here.”
The operative noted that thousands of Las Vegans work for Adelson’s company. Then there are his community connections and political allies. Over the years Adelson has been one of the largest donors to the Nevada Republican Party, and his resort is used almost exclusively for its largest events.
“They’ve got thousands of people who they are able to reach out to at a moment’s notice,” the operative said.
So far, there’s little evidence Adelson has decided to activate an army of potential Gingrich supporters. And the operative declined to speculate how active Adelson and his political team would be on that front.
But evidence of Adelson’s influence — even if it’s indirect — has been felt in the Nevada campaign.
Some of Adelson’s allies have picked up the reins of the Nevada campaign for Gingrich, including former state Sen. Sue Lowden.
Longtime GOP consultant and Adelson ally Dan Burdish is volunteering his time to help run Gingrich’s Nevada campaign.
Perhaps most notably so far, the squabble over how to include in the caucus Orthodox Jews and others who observe a Saturday Sabbath was sparked by Adelson. The regular start time for the caucuses is at 9 a.m., which would exclude those observing the Sabbath.
“He let his voice be known,” one party official said. “He wasn’t calling up my cell or (Clark County Chairman) Dave Gibbs and asking for this to be done, but he let people know he was upset with it, and word travels fast.”
Soon, the county and state party began receiving phone calls from others, primarily of the Jewish faith, who said the 9 a.m. start disenfranchised their vote.
Party officials credit the groundswell of concerned party members for the decision to hold a separate caucus, not Adelson’s influence. Gibbs said Adelson had nothing to do with the selection of the school as the site for the evening caucus. The Adelsons did not personally make the school available, he said.
“The reason it was accepted is A, it was free; B, it was available; and C, it was big enough,” Gibbs said. “That’s it.”
Still, the other campaigns — particularly Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s campaign — who have been working to organize supporters for years, bristled at the last-minute change to the rules.
“The Romney campaign is, of course, supportive of allowing those who cannot attend the Saturday morning caucus for religious observance purposes the opportunity to vote,” said Ryan Erwin, Romney’s Nevada campaign consultant. “Having said that, we feel very strongly the party needs to take all necessary steps to protect the integrity of the process.”
Paul’s Nevada campaign director Carl Bunce was more blunt.
“The Sheldon Adelson ties are troubling,” he said. “It’s his private school, and it happened in the last two weeks, conveniently. It’s ridiculous. You can’t change the rules midstream.”
A decision by Adelson to engage on the organizing side could be significant in leveling the playing field against the turnout machine Romney has painstakingly built over the last four years here.
But the Gingrich campaign also is banking on momentum and a well-funded media campaign to overcome that machine.
With fewer candidates in the race, Gingrich is better able to soak up the anti-Romney vote, but he will have to fend off Paul, who has a strong organization in Nevada. Santorum also is clinging to life and looking for the anti-Romney voters in Nevada.
“I think there’s a lot more money to come, especially if Gingrich wins or keeps Florida close,” said an operative familiar with Adelson’s contributions.
That funding could be critical for sustaining Gingrich’s candidacy as the campaign heads toward Super Tuesday — March 6, when 10 states hold Republican primaries or caucuses — and into states where Romney has built an organization.
“No matter how much organization you have, momentum is very difficult to step in front of in a campaign,” the operative said.
But momentum is also fleeting.
“It’s not a sustaining event in politics,” he said.
Erwin suggested Adelson’s money might work against Gingrich in the end, particularly in a state where Romney has worked assiduously to develop strong relationships.
“(Romney’s) not somebody who is trying to buy the caucus,” Erwin said. “Gov. Romney is the only candidate in this race to make a major policy speech in Nevada. He’s toured the No. 1 foreclosure ZIP code right here in Nevada. He repeatedly talks to Nevada leaders about the problems here and the solutions. Gov. Romney is not a Johnny-come-lately.”
Romney has locked up most of the establishment support in Nevada, winning early endorsements from most of the elected Republicans in the state. The campaign hopes to rely on them to credibly rebut the attacks lobbed against Romney by Gingrich or his super PAC.
“Regardless of an influx of money from anywhere or anyone, this is a state that will respond well to Mitt Romney because he truly understands how to turn around an economy,” Erwin said.