Divided Republicans seek to tap into Tea Party sentiment at Clark County convention

Southern Nevada Republicans sought to unify their divided flock Saturday at the Clark County Republican Party Convention.

Whether they'll succeed in harnessing the anti-incumbent sentiment that's widespread in Nevada and across the country in time for the 2010 election cycle remains in doubt.

The Tea Party movement has rallied conservatives to oppose Democratic proposals for health insurance reform, but Republicans at the state and local level haven't proven they can translate angst and outrage into GOP votes.

The convention at the Palazzo on the Strip was an attempt to convert the Tea Party sentiment into donations, volunteers and, eventually, votes in Nevada.

"It hasn't happened yet," Clark County party chairman Bob Ruckman said, quickly adding he expects a Tea Party surge to help Republicans in November.

Ruckman said most of the volunteers for the event Saturday came from the Tea Party movement. "It is not the old guard doing the volunteer work. This is the Tea Party people."

About 450 delegates plus some guests attended to vote on party bylaws and new planks for the party platform and sign up to attend the state convention in June. Republican candidates worked the crowd.

Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki was the highest-ranking Nevada elected official to address the group.

Former Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was commanding the USS Cole when it was struck by terrorists off the coast of Yemen in October 2000, killing 17 people, gave the most dramatic speech of the day.

He described hearing and feeling the explosion of a bomb from his cabin in the ship.

"I literally had to grab the sides of my desk while I watched everything lift up about a foot and go back down," he said.

Lippold of Carson City, told the audience he was founding a nonprofit group to support conservative causes. Outside the convention hall candidates shook hands, mingled and tried to recruit volunteers and support for their campaigns.

Sue Lowden, the leader among 25 candidates for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was at the county convention and said she was impressed by volunteers who were new to politics.

"They are folks who have been yelling at the TV for years," Lowden said. "They are becoming more and more engaged."

Danny Tarkanian, Lowden's chief rival so far in the U.S. Senate campaign, said he launched television ads on cable last week and will start advertising on network television later this week.

He said the spots will describe his views on conservative principles and government spending.

"I think we started at the right time to get our message out," said Tarkanian, who is getting on television months after Reid and weeks after Lowden.

Lowden and others at the convention were careful to differentiate the Tea Party movement -- something Republicans in attendance said they support -- from the campaign for U.S. Senate by Jon Scott Ashjian, who is running under the Tea Party label.

Republicans fear Ashjian will siphon votes from their nominee, which would be to Reid's advantage. They have alleged Ashjian's candidacy is somehow orchestrated by Reid, something Ashjian denies and Republicans can't prove.

Attendance was well short of the approximately 3,000 who attended the county convention in 2008, when the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns were driving widespread interest in politics.

William Pojunis, communications director for the Clark County Republican Party, said more than 700 precincts failed to send a delegate to the event.

"They had the opportunity; they just didn't take advantage of it. There is a lot of apathy out there," Pojunis said.

He added that although attendance was low compared to 2008, it was better than in previous nonpresidential years.

Others saw it differently.

"It is a failure," said Swadeep Nigam, former treasurer of the county party. "There is not much grass-roots support for the convention it looks like."

Nigam, who was a party official and helped organize the 2008 event at The Orleans, said turnout is important because it translates to donations and further organization.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.