Next, candidates gamble on Nevada

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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The Nevada caucuses on Saturday are the next stop in the Republican primary season, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is favored for victory.

All four candidates have indicated that they will compete: Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were already in Nevada by the time the Florida primary results were announced, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich planned to fly there Tuesday night. Romney, however, has the edge.

Nevada has caucuses, like Iowa, meaning that organization matters. “To really have a chance at winning the caucus you have to be organizing back in June,” said Chuck Warren, a political consultant who works on a number of Nevada races.

Romney and Paul have been doing exactly that.

After winning the caucuses with 51 percent of the vote in 2008, Romney remains very popular. The state also boasts a large Mormon population, making his religion a boon, rather than a potential problem as some suggested it was in states like South Carolina.

Romney’s organization has been all but in place since 2008, and he has the support of the Republican establishment in the state. He has been endorsed by Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, the state’s two Republican congressmen, most of the Republican members of the state assembly, as well as many former Nevada politicians.

“We’ve been laser focused, really since we started, on the task at hand,” said Ryan Erwin, a senior advisor to the Romney campaign in Nevada.

“In a caucus it’s really all about identification and turnout … we developed a plan, not terribly unlike the one we developed four years ago, and really just kind of hit the pavement,” he said.

Paul also has a large presence in the state. He is organized and will benefit from his fiercely devoted following in a state where organization is what matters.

“We’ve had a campaign staff in place … they’ve been here since July, and they’ve ramped up over the course of that time to just adding stuff, monthly, bimonthly; every time I’ve gone there there’s been new stuff,” said Jesse Law, a conservative activist and a Paul supporter.

The campaign has been running an aggressive voter registration program in the state, targeting independents, Law said. The Paul campaign is also organizing numerous coalitions in the state — ranging from Mormons to homeschoolers to seniors to small businesses.

The two candidates will benefit from their early organization because unlike the Iowa caucuses, the Nevada Republican Party voted this year not to allow same-day registration, meaning people must have been registered Republican by Jan. 20 in order to participate in the caucuses. That favors candidates who have been active in the state awhile.

Gingrich has minimal organization in the Silver State — the campaign’s two phone banks opened Monday and Tuesday — but he may be able to draw off some support as the anti-Romney candidate.

“There is a still a component of the Republican base looking for both a ‘true conservative’ alternative to Romney and also for a candidate that grabs the heart,” observed Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Romney is a presence, but he suffers from the bland factor. Thus, Gingrich, the current ‘true conservative’ alternative and certainly a more charismatic candidate, could do fairly well.”

David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that he could perceive Gingrich “getting the support of tea party folks in Nevada” as the anti-Romney candidate.

“They’re just kind of settling,” he said.

Gingrich also has the support of casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who has dumped millions of dollars into a super PAC supporting Gingrich. But Adelson, said Herzik and Damore, is less of a presence in Nevada politics than he once was, and it’s unclear whether he will take a more prominent role in the lead up to the caucuses.

The Santorum campaign went on the air with an ad in Nevada Tuesday, and opened a campaign headquarters this past weekend. Santorum himself was already in Nevada when the Florida results came in, and his campaign has indicated that he will compete in the state.

Herzik was not optimistic about the former Pennsylvania senator’s prospects. “They started late, and I would guess have been slowed by Santorum’s relatively weak showings in NH and SC,” Herzik noted in an email. “Santorum’s social conservatism is also not the draw in Nevada that it is in Iowa or the Southern states.”

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