Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011 | 2 a.m.
The Republican presidential hopefuls who took the stage to debate in Las Vegas Tuesday night played for the national spotlight and momentum in the shifting race, not necessarily the Nevada vote.
The audience inside the Sands Expo and Convention Center hall, however, served as an instant focus group of sorts on Nevada Republicans — who will play a key role in selecting the candidate to challenge President Barack Obama next year.
Their reactions showed they’re wary of repeating last year’s misstep of nominating a weak candidate — Sharron Angle for U.S. Senate — in a critical race. The also are eager to elect someone who’s serious about cutting government spending and will be tough on immigration.
Alternating cheers, boos and catcalls showed the crowd was impressed by Newt Gingrich’s smarts, enthusiastic about a female candidate and entertained by Herman Cain’s one-liners.
But it was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won the state four years ago and has put more money and energy into building support in Nevada than any other candidate, who appeared to have their support — they repeatedly booed when Romney’s chief rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, went on the attack.
“You stood here in front of the American people and did not tell the truth that you had illegals working on your property,” Perry shot at Romney, making a third attempt at attacking Romney and drawing some exasperated boos.
Responding to the line of attack, first raised four years ago, Romney blamed the landscaping company he hired for employing illegal immigrants.
Perry’s opposition to building a border fence didn’t appear to impress the Nevada crowd, which appeared to want a tougher stance while not wanting to offend the many Hispanics living here.
Bachmann’s use of the term “anchor baby” in response to a question on whether to repeal birth-right citizenship sent an uncomfortable shudder through the crowd in a state with a large Hispanic population.
But Bachmann drew loud cheers when she vowed “I will not fail you” when it comes to solving the foreclosure crisis, using the issue to play to mothers.
But the Republican field punted on offering a specific solution to the issue, which is one of the most significant drags on the state’s sinking economy. Bachmann vowed to solve it but said only job creation would provide a solution to the foreclosure crisis.
Cain, Perry and Rick Santorum blamed the bank bailout.
Romney used the opportunity to stress his support of allowing market forces to eventually correct the foreclosure crisis.
Las Vegas Republican Mike Richardson, who supports Romney, said the hands-off government approach to the foreclosure crisis may not be a deal-breaker for Republican primary voters, even in a state hit as hard as Nevada.
“This is a government-created problem, so it makes it tough for the market to take care of it,” he said. “But they can’t keep throwing money at the problem.”
Others weren’t impressed.
Jeremy Aguero, an economist with Applied Analysis who watched the debate, said he was surprised the candidates offered no concrete solution. “Something that would actually do something for the state of Nevada, that’s what I expected to hear,” Aguero said.
For many in the debate hall, nominating a candidate strong enough to take on Obama was a priority, particularly in light of Angle’s loss to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.
“After Sharron Angle, I’m just astonished that some people think we can just throw up Mickey Mouse and they’ll beat an unpopular Democrat,” said one Reno Republican at the debate who didn’t want her name to be used for fear of offending her party members. “Obama is not a stupid man. We need someone who will be able to stand up to the slug fest.”
Perry’s Nevada campaign adviser, Mike Slanker, cautioned against drawing conclusions from the crowd support. “I’m not sure how reflective of the electorate that crowd is,” Slanker said. “To me, this is a two-man race again.”
But the crowd could be a reflection of the ability of the individual campaigns to rally the local voters who will decide the Jan. 14 caucuses.
Romney’s campaign appeared to win that count.
“You gotta give the Romney team their due,” Slanker said. “They’ve been working this state for the past five years. They’ve done a good job.”