When Nevada Democrats meet Saturday to hold political caucuses across the state, the party gatherings will play out as choreographed re-election rallies for President Barack Obama.
Unlike four years ago when competition was fierce among Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates, Obama is the unopposed party standard bearer. So the 2012 caucuses are aimed at energizing his supporters, raising money and registering more Democrats.
On the Republican side, party members will gather at their own caucuses two weeks later on Saturday, Feb. 4, in a competitive process to help select a GOP presidential nominee to challenge Obama on Nov. 6. Republican caucus-goers will take a presidential vote -- by secret ballot -- that will be binding on elected GOP Nevada delegates to the Republican National Convention.
The big question ahead of the Feb. 4 caucus is how many Republicans will be in contention after the four presidential voting states in January: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor favored to win the Nevada caucus and the GOP nomination, might be battling few survivors by the time of the Silver State contest. After back-to-back victories in conservative Iowa and moderate New Hampshire, Romney could be on a steady march to seal the deal, eliminating most of his opponents ahead of the key March 6 Super Tuesday contests.
Romney's main threat in Nevada remains Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who finished behind Romney here in 2008 and has a campaign ground organization in the state as strong as the front-runner's.
Otherwise, the remaining conservative alternatives to Romney could make a play to pick up some of Nevada's 28 GOP delegates, especially well-funded former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania or Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"If Romney doesn't win South Carolina, the race will make it to Nevada," predicted Robert Uithoven, a GOP operative not associated with any presidential campaign. "But if he wins South Carolina, it's very difficult to see who shows up in Nevada other than Mitt Romney and Ron Paul."
Nevada's 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention will be bound to a particular candidate based on the percentage of the vote he gets in the presidential preference poll taken at the end of the caucuses. The top vote-getter will rack up the most delegates -- a haul of 14 for winning 50 percent of the vote for example -- but other candidates also can pick up a share of the delegates.
Nationwide, a total of 2,286 GOP delegates are at stake this year. So the victorious Republican must gain 1,144 in the primary campaign to win a majority. Then he'll be declared the GOP nominee at the national convention, where the final delegate vote is announced state by state.
South Carolina's primary is Saturday , 10 days before Florida's primary on Jan. 31.
In Nevada, turnout for Saturday's Democratic caucus is expected to top 3,000. That compares to more than 116,000 in 2008 when Nevada was the third state to vote in a highly competitive race.
Turnout for the Republican Party caucus -- the first in the West -- could be as high as 70,000, but the GOP might see far fewer participants if there's not much competition beyond Romney and Paul. In 2008, 44,000 Republicans participated when the eventual GOP nominee John McCain skipped the state.
This year, Nevada might have seen more GOP candidate action and excitement if the state party had moved its caucus into January, as state Democrats did when the other early states moved up their calenders. Yet GOP officials still hope for a strong showing in what remains a key battleground state.
In the general election four years ago, Obama won Nevada by 12 percentage points but isn't expected to have such as easy time in 2012 given the state's unemployment rate, the highest in the nation at 13 percent.
The party caucuses are the only chance Nevada voters will have to weigh in on the White House contest before the general election because there's no presidential primary here. Caucuses are neighborhood political meetings, while primaries involve just checking off a candidates' name on a ballot.
While the Republican gatherings will pit supporters of competing presidential contenders against one another, Obama is counting on the Nevada caucus to energize his supporters.
"At the caucus, volunteers from across Nevada will come together with their families, friends, neighbors and co-workers to share their stories and organize on behalf of the president," said Ofelia Casillas, a campaign spokeswoman. "A key part of the caucus will be learning how to register voters and empowering these caucus-goers to engage their communities to re-elect President Obama in 2012."