Monday, June 23, 2008

CAMPAIGN 2008: Presidential candidates eye Nevada

CAMPAIGN 2008: Presidential candidates eye Nevada

Silver State receiving attention befitting its role as battleground

Photo by K.M. Cannon.

Turn on the television in Las Vegas or Reno or Elko, and you'll see a presidential candidate who wants your vote.

There's the Democrat, Barack Obama, talking about the heartland values he learned from his grandparents. There's the Republican, John McCain, talking about saving the environment.

You don't have to settle for a commercial; you can see them in person. Obama will visit Las Vegas on Tuesday for a campaign event focused on the economy; McCain will be in town on Wednesday, opening a campaign headquarters.

There's no doubt Nevada is in both campaigns' sights as a top battleground.

"Batten down the hatches," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter based in Washington, D.C. "It's going to be a targeted state for both sides. It's going to get a whole lot of attention by the time November rolls around."

Analysts agree that Nevada could swing either way.

"I've seen the state called everything from toss-up to a slight lean Republican from the prognosticators, but there's no scenario where anybody thinks either candidate is going to run away with the state," said Nevada Republican consultant Ryan Erwin, who's not working on the presidential campaign.

Four years ago, President Bush won Nevada by 20,000 votes, earning 50 percent of the vote to Democratic nominee John Kerry's 48 percent. Since 1912, Nevada has voted for the winner of every presidential election, except 1976, when the state chose Republican Gerald Ford rather than Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Ask Democrats, and they'll tell you Nevada is:

• A state that's becoming more receptive to their message.

• A state where growth has changed the demographics, beefing up the Democratic stronghold of Clark County.

• A state where Western libertarianism is being tempered by suburban quality-of-life concerns.

Republicans, on the other hand, say Nevada remains inherently conservative, a state where residents of all political stripes favor low taxes, small government and being left alone. They say McCain, an Arizona senator with a maverick image, fits that ethos.

The signs that both candidates have joined the competition for the state are abundant. McCain has situated his Western regional campaign office in Henderson. Wednesday's visit will be his third to Nevada since he captured the nomination. McCain had a town hall in Reno late last month.

Obama also visited Nevada last month. Even before he captured the nomination, his campaign had a volunteer organizing event in Las Vegas.

The Obama campaign has told donors that if he carries Nevada, other Mountain West states, and possibly Virginia or Georgia, he could get the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency even if he loses Florida and Ohio, The Associated Press reported last week.

A Review-Journal poll this month found that McCain had the support of 44 percent of Nevada voters, Obama 42 percent, with 14 percent undecided.

Strategists for both campaigns are optimistic.

"Nevada voters are conservative voters: independents, Democrats and Republicans," said John Peschong, McCain regional campaign manager for the Western states. "We believe John McCain is the right candidate with the right message to reach out to those folks. He's a Westerner. He understands the issues that concern them on a daily basis."

Obama campaign senior strategist Anita Dunn said Nevada voters are looking for what Obama offers: change.

"Senator Obama's message about the future, his message about moving past the partisan gridlock to a politics that's about solving our problems rather than finger-pointing, is something that does fit the culture of the West," she said. "Senator McCain's policies increasingly resemble George Bush's. ... He's essentially lost his maverick qualities."

Which side wins the argument in the months ahead will depend on several factors. Here are nine questions, the answers to which, according to political analysts and the two campaigns, will determine who wins Nevada.

1. What effect did the caucuses have?

Democrats made Nevada an early state in the primary process, having caucuses right after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. An astonishing 118,000 Nevadans participated in Democratic caucuses on Jan. 19. Republicans also had caucuses, which, while lower-key, drew 40,000 participants.

Hillary Clinton won more precinct delegates on Jan. 19: 51 percent to Obama's 45 percent. But Dunn of the Obama campaign argues that what matters is both candidates mobilized volunteers and got people involved, creating a campaign infrastructure that can be built on for November while McCain starts essentially from scratch.

Although Obama staffers left the state after the caucuses, the campaign kept its supporters mobilized for the county conventions in February and state Democratic Convention last month, she said.

Republicans had a primary in South Carolina on the same day as the Nevada caucus, which they mostly ignored. Mitt Romney built an organization in the state, but his lopsided win wasn't taken that seriously as the state was seen as basically uncontested.

Erwin, who worked for Romney in Nevada, said, "The organization we built for Romney, much of that is now working for McCain."

2. What does the Democrats' voter registration advantage mean?

On the day of the caucus, Democrats collected 30,000 voter registration forms. The efforts of the presidential campaigns and a strong push by the party have contributed an advantage in voter registration of more than 50,000.

By contrast, as of four years ago, there were 10,000 more Republicans than Democrats in the state, according to the secretary of state's office.

In May 2004, Republicans represented 41 percent of the Nevada electorate, Democrats 40 percent. As of May 2008, Democrats made up 43 percent of active registered voters, while Republicans made up 38 percent.

"There's no question that there's a trend locally and nationally toward the Democrats and away from the Republicans," said Dan Hart, a Nevada Democratic consultant unaffiliated with the presidential campaigns.

But while Republicans say they would like to be on the upside of the 50,000 voter gap, some say it has more to do with the Democrats working harder to get people registered and having a more contested caucus, than with the state truly trending blue.

"Republicans have to do a better job of registering voters, and I think they will, and I think they are starting to," said Republican consultant Sig Rogich, an early McCain supporter. "You will start to see those numbers even out."

In addition, he said, the numbers can be misleading because Nevada has a long tradition of rural Democrats voting for Republicans.

3. What role does rural Nevada play?

In 2004, rural Nevada delivered the state for Bush. Kerry got 25,000 more votes than Bush in Clark County, but with 65 percent of the rural vote, Bush pulled ahead.

They make up only about 15 percent of the state's population, but residents of the rural counties turn out to vote much more reliably than urban voters. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has argued that Kerry could have won the state if he had campaigned in rural areas; he still would have lost there but by a slimmer margin.

"If you're a Democrat, you don't have to carry those places; you just have to up your share of the vote outside Clark County," national analyst Duffy said.

Before the caucuses, Obama campaigned in Elko and released a platform of proposals for rural Nevada. He was stronger there than Clinton.

"The Republicans have had success in the past with high turnout outside of Clark County," said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno. "But is McCain enough of a draw to get 80 percent in Douglas County and Elko and those kinds of places? McCain wasn't their first choice, and they still have questions about him on issues like immigration."

4. Who will win the Hispanic vote?

McCain co-sponsored immigration reform legislation with Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy that would have allow some illegal immigrants to become citizens. Under fire from conservatives, McCain since has dialed back that position, saying the borders need to be secured before any other action is taken.

Republicans hope McCain can make inroads with the Hispanic vote as a result. His Spanish-language radio ads, which began airing a couple of weeks ago in Nevada and New Mexico, are evidence his campaign plans to try.

"He crossed party lines to work out solutions to the illegal alien problem," Rogich said. "He was a statesman on that issue and that was noticed. I hear that from the Hispanic community all the time."

In Nevada, Hispanics make up about 15 percent of the voting population. Exit polls from the Jan. 19 Democratic caucuses showed about 65 percent of Hispanics supported Clinton over Obama, and he is thought to have work to do to shore up their support.

"The Hispanic vote can be the deciding factor in this campaign. It has the potential to be the deciding demographic group," Hart, the Democratic consultant, said.

5. Will Democrats be unified?

Hispanics are just one group of Clinton supporters that Obama must bring to his side.

In Nevada, Clinton drew on her husband's network of supporters to build support within the Democratic establishment and lock up most of the major endorsements.

"Senator Clinton was an extraordinarily strong candidate," said Dunn, the Obama strategist. "She always started off as the prohibitive favorite. But we are now a unified Democratic Party."

Obama built a grass-roots network outside of Clinton's institutional advantages, and now that Clinton supports Obama, he will enjoy both, Dunn said.

Plenty of Clinton delegates at the Democrats' convention in Reno last month swore they wouldn't vote for Obama, particularly the older women who were the bedrock of Clinton's support. National analyst Duffy noted that in the recent Review-Journal poll, Obama had less support among Democrats, 71 percent, than McCain did among Republicans, 78 percent, and speculated that might be because Clinton's supporters are still angry.

But Duffy and other analysts expect the Democrats to come together. "It was a superficial split, and it's already beginning to heal," UNR's Herzik said. After their convention in August, "you'll have a unified Democratic Party."

6. Will Republicans be unified?

Herzik expects party unity to be more of a problem for McCain than Obama.

In the primaries, he said, "John McCain had substantive differences with other Republicans. Obama and Clinton pretty much agreed on all the issues; McCain was for an immigration bill that a lot of other Republicans hated."

McCain came in third in the Nevada caucuses, behind Romney and Ron Paul.

Peschong, the McCain regional manager, drew a parallel with the New Hampshire primary, where McCain had more than 100 town hall meetings and revived a campaign that was out of money and left for dead. Republicans, he said, just need to get to know their candidate.

"We do not believe he has a problem with the conservative base," he said. "Senator McCain is pro-life. He supports the Second Amendment. Once we have an opportunity to talk to the base, they will support him."

7. Will Nevada-specific issues resonate with voters?

Although he is a Westerner, McCain has staked out some positions that aren't popular with Nevadans. He once introduced legislation to ban betting on college sports, a major source of dollars for Las Vegas casinos, and he has been a proponent of the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

McCain's position on Yucca Mountain has seemed to soften in recent weeks as he has said he also supports an international nuclear facility.

In 2004, Kerry attacked Bush on the Yucca issue; Bush promised to base decisions about the dump on science, something Democrats charge he has not done.

"It's a litmus test for candidates," Hart, the Nevada Democratic consultant, said of Yucca Mountain. "Unfortunately, some candidates give it lip service. They say one thing and then do another. I do think the candidate who wins has to have the right position on Yucca."

But Herzik said voters have bigger things on their minds: the war and the economy.

"I don't think anybody's going to make their choice about John McCain based on where he stands on sports betting," he said. "And the people for whom Yucca Mountain is a to-die-for issue aren't going to vote for a Republican anyway. The issue that the candidates will talk about that has the biggest link to Nevada is the housing market."

8. Who will win independent and moderate voters?

It's an axiom of political science that candidates run to their base, conservative or liberal, to win primaries, then run back to the middle of the political spectrum for the general election.

"The Democrats will try hard to make John McCain the next George Bush, and the Republicans will make Barack Obama out to be a crazy liberal," said Erwin, the Nevada Republican consultant. "But I believe this is a campaign that will be won on a handful of very middle-of-the-road issues."

McCain and Obama's early campaign TV ads send moderate messages. Obama's, titled "Country I Love," talks about his grandparents from Kansas and their values. It emphasizes his work to get people off welfare and cut taxes, traditionally conservative themes.

McCain has run two TV spots. In the first, he declares, "Only a fool or a fraud talks tough or romantically about war." In the second, he notes that he went against Bush on global warming, taking a stance more traditionally associated with Democrats.

"They're playing for the center," said Hart, the Democratic consultant. "There's that huge group of people out there who don't belong to either party. In most cases, whoever appeals to them more effectively will be more successful."

9. Who will vote?

"Turnout is the critical factor," UNR's Herzik said. "Clark County generally has low turnout, and that's where the Democratic base is. If they can reverse that in a significant way, the chances of a Democratic victory go way up."

No matter what the polls or the registration numbers say, what matters in November is who actually shows up to vote.

"Nevada had a caucus with record turnout, but that's not very reflective of the general electorate," Duffy said. "Now both sides are talking to the people that didn't participate in that process."

Hart agreed, citing lessons from the 2004 race.

"It's nuts-and-bolts politics: They (the Bush campaign) identified voters and got them to the polls, especially in the rural counties," he said. "Presidential elections are a matter of a few points one way or the other. You can look very good in the polls, but unless you get those people to vote, you are not going to win an election."

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball or 702-387-2919.

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