Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 | 2 a.m.
For months, Nevada Republicans have giddily anticipated how today’s nationally televised presidential debate and subsequent Western leadership conference would draw the eyes of the nation to the state and establish its first-in-the-West caucuses as a key contest for GOP contenders.
Instead, most candidates spent the past week pledging to boycott Nevada’s Jan. 14 caucuses over a dispute the state is having with New Hampshire related to its primary date.
It’s an awkward introduction for a week that was meant to feature Las Vegas at the center of the political moment. And, in fact, most of the candidates appear to be here more for the national lights, regional platform and deep party pockets than an opportunity to get to know or solidify their appeal with the everyday people of Las Vegas.
Were this Iowa, every candidate would be jockeying for the best-positioned bale of hay and the most impressive looking stick of deep-fried butter. Were it New Hampshire, candidates would doubtless be dropping into VFW halls and country stores, shaking hands and kissing babies.
But Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, who placed first and second in the Nevada caucuses four years ago, were the only candidates to hold public rallies by the eve of the debate (which will be aired at 5 p.m. on CNN).
“Most of the candidates, they’re going to use us as a great backdrop ... but you start looking at their plans, and there isn’t really much in there for Nevada,” UNLV politics professor David Damore said. “My fear is that we get sort of taken as a prop.”
It’s hard to escape the feeling that Nevada is campaigning for the attention of these candidates as much as the candidates are campaigning for votes.
Nevada, of course, doesn’t have a lot of delegates — the state was to send about 28 to the national convention, but moving its caucus ahead of the Republican National Committee’s schedule cost it half.
Still, some say that as a swing state, it has a lot to offer as an indicator. “How Nevada goes could have a lot to say about who the next president of the United States is,” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told a crowd of Romney supporters Monday in Las Vegas. He was pandering to a crowd, but that’s exactly what Nevadans have wanted to hear.
Nevada got its first chance at national spotlight during the 2008 caucuses, but turnout was so low, and the vote for Romney so decisive, that it began the 2012 cycle as the forgotten cousin of the early primary states. In fact, Las Vegas has been used less as a campaign stop than as a symbol of the blighted economy that President Barack Obama’s policies haven’t fixed.
But some see that changing, starting this week.
“I think eyes are turning toward Nevada,” former Gov. Bob List said. “Having the site of the debate in Las Vegas in itself is a big deal. I think they’re depending on this debate as a significant milestone in the Nevada campaign.”
Republican political consultant Robert Uithoven said, “Following the debate, there will be a new focus, a more energized focus, on Nevada; the real contenders here are out campaigning, and I think that’s important.”
But, Uithoven added, people need to remember this process is new here. “People need to keep in mind that ... New Hampshire has been doing this for decades. Iowa’s been doing it for decades. For our second time through, I actually think Nevada’s doing a pretty good job.”
The debate itself could prove to be the best forum for candidates to drive a local message home. CNN has billed this debate as an event in the West, for the West, filling the audience with attendees from 16 noncoastal Western states, and promising to address the issues that matter to that constituency.
Immigration is bound to come up, as is the economy. And few GOP presidential candidates have yet had to speak directly about their foreclosure policy.
Uithoven said he hopes there will be Nevada-specific questions so the candidates can demonstrate their understanding of the situation here. But it may be too early in Nevada’s development as an early caucus state to expect the candidates to do much more.
“No one knows how to campaign in Nevada,” Damore said. “There’s no iconic places like there are in the early primary states. In Las Vegas, where are they going to find Republicans? It’s much more worthwhile to raise money than campaign at this point.”