GOP caucus boycott brewing for Nevada

Good riddance, Jon Huntsman.

Don't let the door hit you on your way out of Nevada, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.

Kiss your chances goodbye, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, if you follow through on threats to join the lower-tier presidential candidates in boycotting Nevada's first-in-the-West GOP caucuses.

That's the message from Nevada GOP leaders as the contenders descend on Las Vegas for a debate Tuesday that Huntsman is skipping to protest the Silver State holding its GOP presidential caucuses on Jan. 14 over the objections of New Hampshire.

"The reality is, candidates like Huntsman weren't making it and didn't have a group working on the ground," said Heidi Smith, the GOP national committee­woman from Nevada. "If they don't want to play ball, fine. I think it's stupid. It's foolish. They weren't going to get any votes here anyway."

That leaves the field mostly to Mitt Romney, whose series of strong debate performances have made him the man to beat, especially in Nevada where he won the GOP presidential caucuses in 2008.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry remains a big threat to Romney in Nevada and nationwide after raising $17 million -- $3 million more than Romney -- in the past quarter.

Perry's visit this week will mark his first campaign trip to Nevada, raising the stakes for his fifth debate after turning in poor performances since his late entry in the race this fall. Gov. Brian Sandoval gave Perry a lift by endorsing him as several polls showed him competitive with Romney.

Perry needs to sideline his conservative competitors to gain traction -- something a Nevada boycott could help him do. After all, it's Tea Party favorite Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich and Cain who have been slicing up the far right portion of the Republican Party to Perry's detriment.

"Cain is the biggest threat to Perry," said Dave Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "The last time around, Perry was very defensive in the debate. He didn't want to take any risks. Maybe Cain gives him something to focus on in Nevada."

Damore said he'll also be watching to see if Romney goes on the attack against Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza who's been rising to the top of some national polls.

Otherwise, Romney's main job is to keep on message that he has both the government and private business experience as a turnaround expert to pull the nation out of its economic stall.

Perry's comeback has been that he created 1 million jobs during his three terms as governor, while Massachusetts was 47th in the nation in job creation during the Romney administration.

"For Romney, he's like running out the clock, not doing anything stupid," Damore said.


The debate, airing live on CNN at 5 p.m. Tuesday , is co-sponsored by the network and the Western Republican Leadership Conference. The two-hour program will include more than 90 minutes of debate among seven candidates, standing at podiums arranged by how well they're doing in national polls.

Romney will take center stage, flanked by Perry and Cain, said Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief.

Filling out the stage will be Rep. Bachmann of Minnesota, former House Speaker Gingrich of Georgia, former Sen. Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a favorite of libertarian-minded Nevadans.

Feist said the primary season debates are a chance for voters nationwide to see candidates side by side, highlighting their differences. More experienced debaters and speakers often do better, but Feist said it's a good proving ground for the White House.

"We've never had a good president who wasn't also a good communicator," Feist said, adding the compressed early voting calendar and Nevada's role as the West's first battleground increases the spotlight on the Las Vegas face-off. "It's an important event at an important time in this campaign."

CNN's Anderson Cooper will moderate the debate. Some of the expected 1,500 members of the audience in The Venetian's Sands Expo Convention Center also will be called on to ask questions.

Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said multicandidate debates are hard because there's little time to answer.

"At most, if you're lucky in a primary debate, your total evening output will be 10 minutes that you'll be able to talk," he said. "You have to be very sharp, be prepared and anticipate the question."


Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Republican National Committee for a half dozen years in the 1980s, has watched the primary calender get earlier and more compressed.

"It's continuing to get earlier and earlier, and it's very, very silly," Fahrenkopf said. "But these two small states, Iowa and New Hampshire, have tremendous power in the process."

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner wants Nevada to move its caucus to a Tuesday, Jan. 17, so he can set the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10. Iowa has scheduled its caucuses on Jan. 3.

Last week, Gardner threatened to set the New Hampshire primary in December if Nevada GOP officials didn't budge. Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian refused, noting Gardner had asked Nevada to set its date first after Florida scrambled the calendar by scheduling its primary on Jan. 31.

That prompted all four early states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- into January. South Carolina set its primary for Jan. 21, pushing Nevada up.

Nevada Republicans have insisted on a Saturday caucus to attract more people since the party meetings involve hours of discussion and not a quick and simple ballot box vote as in a primary.

Huntsman took advantage of the tiff between the two states to gain attention for his struggling campaign, which is running in the red. He sided with New Hampshire, where he has moved his operating base in a last-ditch effort to compete in one early voting state -- where Romney has a big lead.

Huntsman announced he was boycotting the Nevada caucuses unless it changed its date. Santorum, Bachmann and Gingrich quickly joined him in threatening a boycott, although the former House speaker reportedly was hedging, saying he hoped Nevada and New Hampshire would work it out. Huntsman went one step further and said he would skip Tuesday's Las Vegas debate, too.

On Friday, a Cain spokesman in New Hampshire declared Cain would join the Nevada caucus boycott, which surprised his campaign in the Silver State.

"I find that bizarre because, as far as I'm concerned, Herman Cain is taking the state of Nevada very seriously," said Niger Innis, a senior volunteer adviser here. "I have been to several early states, and I would say Nevada is one of the best organized as far as having a ground game."

If the boycott takes hold, Nevada might not be as big a player in the GOP nominating contest, although the Romney campaign said it still sees the state as a big prize. In the general election, the swing state is up for grabs, and President Barack Obama is fighting for a second victory here.

"Nevada still counts, period," said Ryan Erwin, a Nevada consultant for Romney. "The winner of Nevada is going to get significant momentum. It's the first election in the West. And this is one of a dozen states that is going to decide which candidate is president."

Contact Laura Myers at or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.