GOP presidential debate set for Las Vegas in October

Four months before Nevada's GOP presidential caucus, Republican White House hopefuls will debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 18 in a live televised forum hosted by CNN.

The event is sanctioned by the GOP, organizers said Wednesday. It will be part of the Western Republican Leadership Conference, a four-day gathering of GOP leaders across the West and candidates competing for the GOP nomination.

Nevada will be a big player in the 2012 White House sweepstakes as it holds the first early voting contest in the West on Feb. 18, after the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. More than half a dozen potential GOP contenders have trekked through Nevada this year, testing support for their coming campaigns.

The October debate will raise the stakes here further and focus a sharper spotlight on Nevada.

"It's absolutely going to be one of the main events during the presidential cycle," said former Nevada Gov. Robert List, a Republican national committeeman who worked to draw the conference and debate here. "It's huge for our party and for the state."

List is among GOP leaders in Nevada who hope to use the competitive GOP caucus to raise money, register new voters and rebuild the state party -- much like the Nevada Democratic Party did in 2008 for the hotly contested caucus. Democrats registered 100,000 new voters, gaining an edge over Republicans in total statewide registration that continues today.

In 2008, attention was on Democrats as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled to win the Nevada caucus, ultimately splitting the delegates. In the general election, Obama won 55 percent of the vote here, and the president is working to carry the state again. He is scheduled to visit Reno on a Western trip that includes an April 20 Facebook town hall in Palo Alto, Calif.

List said the Nevada Republican Party hasn't yet set fundraising or voter registration goals for 2012, but the GOP is hoping to recruit hundreds of volunteers to help organize the Feb. 18 caucus. He said the fall GOP meeting will help.

Republican leaders and activists from 16 states and territories in the West will meet for the Western Republican Leadership Conference at The Venetian during the week of Oct. 17. The Venetian, owned by generous GOP donor and multibillionaire Sheldon Adelson of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., also will be the setting for the debate.

Former Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., was named conference chairman, according to a joint announcement with CNN. Porter said the event will help decide who will face Obama in November 2012.

CNN also touted the presidential forum, one of three the cable news network is hosting this year.

"Nevada is the gateway to the West in the 2012 Republican presidential primary," said Sam Feist, CNN's political director and vice president of Washington programming. "This is an opportunity for GOP presidential candidates to speak, in person, to Nevada caucus-goers as well as voters from the 15 other states and territories represented by the Western Region."

The Western Region consists of Alaska, American Samoa, Arizona, California, Colorado, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The Conservative Leadership Conference also has scheduled a presidential debate in Las Vegas. At this point, the forum, set for July 10, isn't sanctioned by the Republican Party so it's unclear how many candidates it will draw.

Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@review or 702-387-2919.