Las Vegas Sun

May 25, 2016

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Turnout concerns loom as Nevada’s caucuses arrive

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Steve Marcus

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks to reporters during a campaign stop at the Mountain Shadows Community Center in Summerlin Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.

Volunteers Canvass for GOP Candidates

A resident reads a information on Republican Presidential Candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) as Rubio volunteers canvass a neighborhood in Summerlin Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. Launch slideshow »

Trump Rallies at South Point

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the South Point Arena & Equestrian Center, Monday, February 22, 2016. Launch slideshow »

Rubio Rallies at Texas Station

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks during a rally at Texas Station Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. Launch slideshow »

Cruz Rallies at Durango Hills

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks during a rally at the Durango Hills Community Center Monday Feb. 22, 2016. Launch slideshow »

Two Marco Rubio canvassers weren’t having much luck on Sunday afternoon. Children on tricycles, their parents and barking dogs were out enjoying the sunshine in Summerlin, but most of the doors they knocked were going unanswered.

After leaving door hangers at several houses, the campaign’s canvassing app directed them to the next house, where resident Steve Kelly had the garage door rolled up and was working inside.

The canvassers poked their heads around the corner and introduced themselves. Would he be caucusing for Rubio, they asked?

“I am,” Kelly told them. It was the first good news of the day for the canvassers.

“But I've got to be honest with you,” he continued. “I just made that decision yesterday. I think he’s just conservative enough but moderate enough to get elected.”

Kelly added that while he liked Trump’s “bombastic, tell-it-like-it-is style,” he thought Rubio was more electable.

That’s certainly the message that Rubio has been pushing over the past few days — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, too. In the wake of South Carolina, where Rubio and Cruz essentially tied for second place, each candidate has been trying to position himself as the more electable candidate in the general election. (Rubio technically received second with 0.2 percentage points more than Cruz.)

A victory by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump in the Nevada caucuses today is all but certain, and Rubio and Cruz are expected to again vie for second place. But a decisive second place win could buoy either candidate up as the three spar over the Republican nomination.

“If Rubio polls second in a row, that’s an important narrative for him,” said Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in the state. “Cruz needs to even up where he was from Saturday. A lot of the subplot to this is what each of them can do in Nevada as they go into Super Tuesday and SEC primaries.”

Cruz was upfront about the electability factor in a news conference with reporters Monday morning.

“Polling shows that Donald head-to-head with Hillary Clinton consistently loses. Head-to-head with Hillary, I beat her,” Cruz said. “One of the clear outcomes from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is that I’m the only candidate who can beat Donald Trump.”

Cruz won Iowa, placing third in New Hampshire and third in South Carolina.

Rubio, meanwhile, portrayed himself as a unifying force at a North Las Vegas rally Sunday night, instead of directly going after Cruz or Trump.

"If you elect me for president, I will be president of all Americans, which means I will not pit you against each other in order to win an election,” Rubio told the crowd. “I will work on behalf of everyone — even the people who don't vote for me, even the people who say nasty things about me on Twitter. I will cut their taxes, too.”

Rubio received a significant boon on Sunday when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dropped out of the race. On Monday morning, many of Bush’s prominent Nevada supporters, including Sen. Dean Heller, Rep. Mark Amodei, and Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson, threw their weight behind Rubio.

"It has become abundantly clear that Marco Rubio is the only conservative who can unite the Republican Party and beat Hillary Clinton in November,” Anderson said in a statement.

The electability argument persuaded Cory Christensen, a Republican political consultant who ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 Nevada campaign. He had stayed neutral until Friday.

“He’s someone who can go out and get younger voters. He’s more likely to get that nonpartisan group, too,” Christensen said. “I just don’t see Hillary being able to get those nonpartisans. In a matchup with Hillary, I like Marco a lot.”

Christensen added that he doesn’t see Cruz pulling support from independents in a general election.

But that’s the kind of assertion that national radio host Glenn Beck pushed back against at a Henderson rally with Cruz Sunday night.

“Do your homework,” he urged the crowd. “Don’t listen to the media, please. Don’t listen to that voice that is asking you to compromise because this guy can win and this guy can’t. It’s a lie. It’s a lie.”

At the same time, Trump appears to be coasting easily to victory here in Nevada. On Monday night, about 8,000 people turned out for a rally at the arena at South Point.

“I mean frankly if the people in this room went out and did it we'd win practically with that amount of people,” Trump told the crowd. (Most of the crowd members interviewed by the Sun on Monday night said they were from out of state.)

He added that he plans to visit several of the caucus sites Tuesday night.

Despite the fact that Cruz and Rubio are playing up their electability factors, Trump supporters feel confident in his chances of winning the general election.

Sitting with his wife at South Point before a Trump rally, Air Force veteran Bill Irwin said he thought any of the Republican candidates would win in a general election — though Trump most of all — due to general frustrations among conservatives over the last eight years with Democratic President Barack Obama.

“It has totally demoralized this nation,” Irwin said. “We need to get back to how it used to be.”

Napa, Calif., banker Steve Darlington said he used to support retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson but recently has been favoring Trump.

“I know what I’m going to get with Trump,” Darlington said. “What he says I’ll get. I’m not going to be surprised.”

Darlington added that he hasn’t liked Cruz since the reports came out of Iowa that Cruz supporters were telling people during the caucus that Carson had dropped out of the race. He also added that he thought Cruz was too far to the right to win against Clinton.

On the other hand, he said he thought the chances of Rubio winning against Clinton were high.

“If it falls to him, he has the youth, he’s a centrist,” Darlington said. “He has the skills and the training.”

Cruz supporters seemed similarly confident on Monday at the senator’s chances in a general election.

“Ted Cruz can beat Hillary,” said Glenda Smith, of Las Vegas, at the Cruz rally on Monday. “He’s going to have to take the gloves off, though.”

The big question that remains is how many voters will actually turn out. Turnout in 2008 was 44,000, and in 2012 it was 33,000 — much lower than the 117,000-person turnout the Democrats saw in 2008 and even the 84,000 they saw Saturday.

In the last couple of days, many Nevadans remained undecided about who they would be caucusing for — if they would caucus at all.

Summerlin resident Katherine Townsend told the Rubio canvassers on Sunday afternoon that she still wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know. I’m going back and forth. I’m really for all the stuff Trump is saying about illegal immigration,” Townsend said. “But I’m kind of for Hillary.”

The canvassers marked her down as “undecided.”

In southeast Henderson, the Cruz canvassers weren’t having much more luck on Sunday.

The canvassers caught Elizabeth Schooley in the middle of cleaning her house.

“I’ve seen him speak, I’ve heard what he has to say,” Schooley said, who is undecided. “He’s not a typical politician. For me, that stood out right away.”

Even as campaigns tout the turnout at their rallies, the biggest question is how many are committed to caucusing for their candidate.

One example: Las Vegas resident John Mendonca. Wearing a blinking LED sign that spelled "Rubio," he appeared to be an ardent supporter of the Florida senator. He's not.

The retired union electrician attended Rubio's rally Sunday evening in North Las Vegas, but despite being impressed with the senator in the past, he hasn't stopped listening to other candidates. "I vote for the person, not the party," said Mendonca, a registered Independent who will not be able to caucus in the Republican Party’s closed caucuses in the state.

Tyler Ferstler could relate with Mendonca. The 20-year-old UNLV student — wearing a "Hillary for Prison 2016" T-shirt at the Rubio rally — said she's also torn between the Texas and Florida senators. She hoped to leave Sunday evening with some clarity before participating in her first caucus.

"They both have very similar ideas and very similar ways they want to run things," she said. "I just think it comes down to who would make the best face for our country."

Sun reporter Jackie Valley contributed to this report.

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