Nevadans are casting a record number of early votes in the closest presidential race since 2000, with Democrats outpacing Republicans to give President Barack Obama an edge over Mitt Romney heading to Election Day.
Fighting for votes, Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., plan a rally today in Henderson, the ticket's first joint appearance in Nevada. The visit will come one day before Obama hits Las Vegas during a two-day blitz of six states that will decide who wins the White House.
Doors open for the Romney rally at 10 a.m. today at the Henderson Pavilion, an indoor-outdoor facility that can hold several thousand people. Romney plans to campaign Wednesday in Reno too.
The Wednesday evening "block party" with Obama at Doolittle Park will star singer Katy Perry. Doors open at 6 p.m. with the president scheduled to speak a few hours later, making a quick three-hour stop in Las Vegas.
Obama's and Romney's focus on the Silver State in the final two weeks before Nov. 6 shows how important Nevada is to both of their strategies to gain the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win. Nevada delivers only six of those votes but could make the difference if the race comes down to the wire.
The stakes high, early voting got off to a booster-rocket start, setting records Saturday and Sunday in both Clark and Washoe counties.
Statewide, about 81,130 people voted early, and more than 24,640 absentee ballots were counted, for a total weekend turnout of nearly 106,000, or 8 percent of the electorate, the secretary of state's office reported.
By party, Democrats racked up more than 51,120 voters statewide compared with more than 37,800 for Republicans - an advantage of about 13,320, according to figures posted Monday. More than 16,840 cast ballots as third party or non partisan voters. They could play a decisive role in the close election.
In Clark County, Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax said record early voting happened Saturday and Sunday across the Las Vegas Valley for a total of 59,190 ballots cast, including about 31,400 Democrats and 18,100 Republicans . Four years ago, more than 45,000 first-weekend ballots were cast in Clark.
"After the first two or three days, we're on track to surpass early voting" for 2008, Lomax said Monday afternoon. By then, another 17,000 Nevadans had cast ballots. In 2008, more than two-thirds of voters in Clark County and statewide cast ballots early, Lomax said.
In Washoe County, a record 14,475 ballots were cast over the weekend, compared with 9,036 four years ago.
At the start of early voting, the Democrats had a big voter registration advantage over the Republicans of about 90,000 voters statewide and 127,000 in Clark County, where 70 percent of the population lives.
That compares with four years ago, when the Democrats enjoyed a 100,000 voter registration advantage in Nevada and Obama won by 12 percentage points - or about the same early voting advantage he had back then.
Although Republicans are running behind again this year, a GOP strategist noted Monday that the party is doing far better than in 2008. The strategist also said Republicans have historically tightened the gap each day of the two-week early voting period, which ends Nov. 2.
For example, in 2008 Republicans were more than 16,000 voters behind Democrats after the first weekend of early voting, said Darren Littell, communications director for the GOP's Team Nevada. By the last day of early voting, Republicans nearly matched Democrats' daily tally, election records show.
"The big picture is, we cut into their lead," he said. "We did better the first day this year than we did on our first day in '08. And we did better the second day. And as the days go on we'll do even better."
Littell said Republicans are focused now on turning out "low propensity" voters while Democrats are looking to bank "high propensity" voters ahead of Election Day, or those who would vote no matter when.
On Election Day, Littell said Republicans will have a higher turnout than Democrats, as they historically do, and the GOP will need to spend less energy getting out voters who might not normally go to the polls.
"I don't think anybody ever disputed in either campaign that this was going to be a close, hard-fought battle," Littell said. "But I think they've underestimated our ground game."
Democratic operatives scoffed at GOP hopes of making up lost ground, especially because the Obama campaign has deep roots in the state and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., built a much better organized political machine.
"While we know this is going to be close, elections are ultimately won by which side gets more votes," said Zac Petkanas, a top Democratic operative in Nevada who helped Reid win re-election in 2010. "What you're seeing now are desperate Republican political operatives throwing out irrelevant numbers and percentages in an attempt to confuse what is actually very simple: More Democrats have voted than Republicans."
Petkanas said it isn't true that Democrats are turning out mostly high propensity voters. So far, Democrats account for 46 percent of voters who have not voted in the past three general elections while Republicans account for only 30 percent of those "low propensity" voters. In comparison, 55 percent of Republicans who have voted early had voted in 2006, 2008 and 2010, while 48 percent of Democrats who have already voted are such "high propensity" voters.
"Darren Littell and the Republicans are either making things up or have no idea what they're talking about," Petkanas said.
David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, attributed the high early voting turnout to both the highly competitive presidential race and to Republicans boosting efforts to counter the Democratic turnout machine.
"I think the Republicans realized this isn't going away and we need to make sure we get our voters out early so on Election Day we can really hit the non-partisans," Damore said. "I guess since they were getting their clocks cleaned, they decided they have to do it better."
Visits from the candidates will spur voters to get behind their man, whether it's Obama or Romney, he added. He said the president has a clear voter registration advantage in Nevada but cannot let up with polls showing the race close in the battleground state and the economy here still lagging the rest of the nation.
Also, if Democrats turn out at a much higher rate than Republicans, the president will not only win re-election, but he could help other Democrats in close races, Damore said. The reverse is true, as well: If Republicans turn out in great numbers to support Romney, down-ticket GOP candidates could benefit.
In the U.S. Senate race, for example, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., needs a big Democratic turnout in Clark County to overcome the advantage her Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, has in the rest of the state, which he represented in Congress for three terms.
"At this point, it's all about targeting the base voters to vote for the whole slate," Damore said. "I think there's enough of a (Democratic) cushion for Obama but not enough for Berkley unless there's a big turnout."
Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.