Rising Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's campaign doesn't know much about Nevada.
Contacted last week, his press secretary didn't know his positions on issues specific to the state, such as federal gambling and mining policy or the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
She didn't know whether the former Arkansas governor has any volunteers or endorsements in Nevada. She said she would find answers to these questions, but, over the course of a week, never did.
She referred to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as "the early primary states," although Nevada has a Republican caucus the same day as South Carolina.
Nevada political analysts say that's just as well. Although Huckabee recently pulled 17 percent in a statewide poll of Republican caucus-goers, just 8 percentage points behind front-runner Rudy Giuliani, experts say he's not the kind of candidate who is likely to do well with the Republican base in the Silver State.
He's an evangelical Christian who's far right on social issues, and who, while in office, didn't mind raising taxes now and then. Nevada has some Republican voters who sympathize with that perspective, but they're a minority.
"The more libertarian, anti-tax people seem to dominate the Republican base here," said University of Nevada, Las Vegas political scientist David Damore.
"He's got appeal to that social-conservative wing of the party that cares about abortion and gay marriage, but they're a much smaller wing here than in other states, especially Iowa and South Carolina. And he's got more baggage than some of the other candidates on immigration and taxes."
Huckabee hasn't been to Nevada over the course of the campaign, although he was here for a Republican fundraiser in mid-2006, before he decided to run for president.
His campaign, which despite its newfound popularity remains cash-poor, doesn't have any offices or staff here and hasn't bought any advertising.
There's no real orchestrated volunteer effort, although there are two groups of Nevada Huckabee supporters with a combined 50 members on MeetUp.com.
What, then, to make of Huckabee's strong showing in that poll, conducted earlier this month by the Review-Journal?
Damore said that was a momentary bounce caused by Huckabee's meteoric rise in the national spotlight. First comes positive attention, then comes harsh scrutiny and criticism from other candidates.
When Nevada voters learn more about the amiable, dimpled Southerner, they aren't likely to stick with him, Damore said.
Two more factors make the Jan. 19 Republican caucus an event Huckabee might as well write off, Damore said: First, because it is a caucus rather than a primary, it takes grass-roots organization to mobilize voters to appear in person on a Saturday morning, no matter what the polls say. And that's expensive.
Second, South Carolina's primary is also on Jan. 19, and that state holds much more potential for Huckabee. "South Carolina is where he's going to want to be if he makes it through Iowa and New Hampshire," Damore said.
Nevada Republicans' leanings might be epitomized by Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose campaign last year consisted almost entirely of a promise not to raise taxes; Gibbons is a pro-choice, nonobservant Mormon. State Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, who lost the gubernatorial primary to Gibbons, is popular within the party and has based his career on a small-government message.
Perhaps the most vocal activist for that anti-tax, libertarian-leaning conservative is Carson City activist Chuck Muth, who earlier this year put on a convention, the Conservative Leadership Conference, of like-minded thinkers.
Muth isn't a Republican anymore, having left the party in frustration over its direction. But the conference drew two presidential candidates, dozens of other Republican celebrities and 500 paid attendees.
"The Nevada Republican generally has his own strong private religious beliefs, but because of his libertarian nature, believes those should be kept out of government," Muth said, largely describing himself.
Muth has decried the clout of evangelical Christians in the GOP. "I don't deny that they should have a seat at the table," he said. "My problem has been when they're at the head of the table."
Muth blasts Huckabee for not being fiscally conservative enough and for the considerations he extended to illegal immigrants, such as in-state college tuition, as governor. (Nevada's Millennium Scholarship is available to noncitizens, a position Gibbons supports.)
In Nevada, Muth said, most of the conservatives for whom religious principles are top priority are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they are more likely to support former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney, a Mormon, has built an extensive campaign organization in Nevada, while Huckabee recently had to apologize for comments that seemed to link the religion to Satanism.
It's possible that, since the Nevada Republican caucus has received little national attention and is likely to be overshadowed by South Carolina, how any candidate performs here really doesn't matter.
But Muth contended that if Huckabee does well in other early states but not here, Republicans nationally should pay attention.
"What it's going to say is that he's got a problem outside the South and Midwest," he said. "Once you get to the West, outside the Bible Belt, he doesn't sell."
If Muth is the voice of libertarian-leaning conservatives, his counterpart among religious conservatives is Richard Ziser, a self-described evangelical Christian who was the Republican nominee against Harry Reid in 2004 and lost in a landslide, with just 35 percent of the vote.
Ziser runs a group called Nevada Concerned Citizens and was a backer of a successful effort five years ago to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage.
Ziser said his constituency is "part of the base of the (Republican) party here, but no party exists without multiple caucuses."
In a way, he echoed Muth: "There are a lot of people who consider themselves libertarians who are also social conservatives," he said. "A lot of them would agree with the issues we talk about, they just don't always believe the government should be involved."
Ziser pointed out that, to economic conservatives, Huckabee's backing of a plan to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service and replace it with a national sales tax should be attractive.
Huckabee also recently has taken tougher positions on illegal immigration and was recently endorsed by the leader of the Minutemen.
Zac Moyle, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party, said most Republicans remain undecided and "Nevada's a wide-open state" for the GOP.
"On the Republican side, we've assumed for a long time that someone would emerge from that pool of second-tier candidates," he said. Even so, he said, "everybody on our side is pretty shocked" by Huckabee's rise.
Moyle said Huckabee's lack of organization in Nevada will make it difficult to do well in the caucus.
"The idea behind caucusing is you have to get your people there," he said. "It's going to be difficult to maintain those poll numbers on caucus day without some kind of structure."
Huckabee's press secretary, Alice Stewart, said all states are important to Huckabee's campaign, including Nevada.
"All of the states are extremely important, but right now we are focused, as are all the candidates, on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina," she said.
She acknowledged that Huckabee supported banning gambling in Arkansas, but didn't know whether he would try to ban gambling on the federal level.
Huckabee supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban abortion; Stewart didn't have an answer to whether he would give any leeway to states like Nevada, where a voter-approved statewide initiative enshrines abortion rights.
Huckabee favors expanding nuclear power as part of the solution to global climate change. Stewart didn't know Huckabee's position on Yucca Mountain. In an interview with the online magazine Salon.com last month, the candidate gave a hint, however.
"Everybody wants the benefits of nuclear energy, but nobody wants the storage of the nuclear material in their own backyard," Huckabee told Salon. "Part of it is you have to make it economically viable for somebody to actually receive it. But a lot of it is changing attitudes, educating the public that nuclear byproducts can be disposed of safely, because the first reaction people have is, 'Our kids are going to glow in the dark if we put that stuff in our state.' That's not the case."
Stewart said it was a testament to the strength of Huckabee's message that some Nevada Republicans have embraced him even though he hasn't courted them directly.
"The debates have been on national television, and the people of Nevada have had a chance to see him," she said. "He really does have a message, and it's the issues people talk about around the dinner table. We all know the war in Iraq is important, immigration is important. But when people sit around the dinner table, they talk about how can we improve schools, how can we improve health care."
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2919.