Mona Shield Payne
Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012 | 5:14 p.m.
Democrats in Nevada don’t have a lot to get whipped up about yet this campaign season.
There’s no Republican challenger yet to focus their ire upon. No fiery primary fight to drive crowds.
The economy is puttering along with some signs of improvement, but nothing yet to get excited about. Congress is at a standstill.
And the weather, well, Las Vegas caucusgoers had to battle the wind, while it snowed in Northern Nevada.
In short, Democrats had little reason to gather in high school gyms and lunchrooms across the state on Saturday to go through the motions of a process generally meant to select the party’s nominee.
They know their party’s nominee: President Barack Obama.
Still, more than 12,000 Democrats turned out statewide to cast votes for Obama.
As Bill Burton, a Sparks Democrat, put it: “Somebody’s got to do it.”
At several caucus locations, the mood matched Burton’s sentiment. Perfunctory.
At Cheyenne High School, where more than 300 Democrats gathered in the cafeteria, Robert Elliott acknowledged some in the party are dissatisfied, but he defended Obama as having done the best he could given Washington gridlock.
“It’s not like we’re thrilled with everything he’s (Obama) done, we know what things he hasn’t done,” Elliott said.
In both Reno and Las Vegas, party officials did their best to give rallying speeches, primarily targeting front-runner Mitt Romney but saving a few snide remarks for those who still could emerge as the GOP nominee.
“We learned recently that one of the candidates believes in free love,” U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., told a cheering crowd in a jab at former Speaker Newt Gingrich. He also dropped a one-liner about former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum’s sweater vests.
In Sparks, the sparse crowd of about 60 Democrats listened intently as Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, gave a rallying speech, slamming Romney as a candidate out of touch with voters’ economic suffering.
The audience did little cheering. Even at the applause lines.
Rather, they seemed content to wait until they could break into their meetings, cast their vote for Obama and put their delegates on the path to the county, state and ultimately national convention.
That’s where the real excitement will occur, some party stalwarts said.
“As momentum picks up here, as the race starts to get more competitive, as the president starts to get beat up on, it will energize them,” Smith said. “You’ll see it at the conventions. This is just the first step.”
Saturday’s caucuses were a sharp contrast with the boisterous rallies that marked the competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that drove a turnout of 116,000 four years ago, or even those of 2004 that forced a bigger-than-expected crowd to move from a high school gym to the football field at Chaparrall High School to cheer on John Kerry. Fewer than 10,000 Democrats turned out that year.
But the state party demonstrated it still has a thriving nucleus of organized supporters who will form the backbone of a turnout operation that will grow when the race becomes more competitive.
It’s a nucleus that didn’t exist eight years ago.
Those who turned out Saturday echoed little of the disappointment that some other Democratic voters have been expressing as the Obama campaign seeks to energize a dispirited base.
“We need all the help we can get,” said Terry Janowitz-Fine of Sparks. “We need to get behind him and get him going. He’s done an excellent job, especially when the odds were against him.”
Marietta Lewis, a North Las Vegas Democrat, donned a hat with Obama spelled out in rhinestones.
“I love him,” she said of the president. “He’s very educated and smart. I’m sure the next four years will be better with Obama in office.”
Still, others acknowledged that Obama’s diehard supporters have work to do to generate some excitement.
“I still want to support Obama; he’s been doing a good job in an impossible situation,” said Kristin Ferguson of Las Vegas. “I don’t think, overall, there’s as much enthusiasm because of the economy. Personally, I’m still excited.”