When Texas Gov. Rick Perry comes to Las Vegas on Oct. 18 for a GOP presidential debate, his first visit as a candidate will signal the start of the White House race in Nevada.
Until now, the Silver State has been Mitt Romney's political playground. It's a backdrop he's used to unveil his jobs plan at a North Las Vegas trucking company, to walk through a neighborhood hit hard by the housing crisis and to organize a national phone bank that raised $10 million in one day.
Even as Romney appears to be gaining confidence on the national stage, it's in Southern Nevada especially where the former Massachusetts governor has shown himself most at ease. He's had little real competition for support here almost since he won the state's GOP presidential caucuses in 2008.
That's about to change.
Starting next Sunday , Nevada will become the national focus of the presidential race as hundreds of Democratic and Republican politicians, leaders and activists flood Las Vegas at two separate events surrounding the high-stakes debate that will be nationally televised on CNN.
The three-day Project New West summit, with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., will kick off Oct. 16. The Oct. 19-21 Western Republican Leadership Conference, where several GOP candidates will speak, is to be topped off by President Barack Obama's visit to Las Vegas Oct. 24 for the first time in a year.
Why all the attention?
Nevada is holding the first GOP presidential voting in the West, on Jan. 14, just behind Iowa and New Hampshire. And the Silver State is up for grabs, a swing state that has picked every president for the past century except one in 1976, when Jimmy Carter lost here but won the White House.
"A lot of big states with a lot of Electoral College votes don't matter as much as little Nevada does," said Stuart Rothenberg, a top political analyst who writes the Rothenberg Political Report. "You're one of a dozen or so states that will decide the race."
In an Oct. 6 report, Rothenberg said that if the White House contest were held today between Obama and Romney -- who is seen as the Republican to beat -- Romney would have a slight edge in gaining the necessary 270 Electoral College votes out of a total 538 nationwide to win.
Rothenberg identified three states with puny Electoral College prizes -- Nevada (six), Iowa (six) and Colorado (nine) -- as those Obama won in 2008 yet could lose in 2012, "pushing Romney over the top."
But the Nov. 6, 2012, general election is more than a year away -- a lifetime in politics -- and Romney first must win the GOP nomination, which is far from certain with no votes yet cast.
PERRY COURTS CONSERVATIVES
In Nevada, like the rest of the nation, all eyes are on Perry to see if he can survive a rocky campaign start and weak debate performances to become the more conservative alternative to Romney.
Perry's biggest threat from the right at the moment is Herman Cain, who has been rising in the polls and has a core of tea party support in Nevada and elsewhere.
Among the libertarian crowd, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, remains a favorite. In 2008, he came in second in Nevada's GOP caucuses.
Perry would have to coalesce conservatives behind him to beat Romney in Nevada, where the state's delegates will be awarded based on a candidate's proportion of caucus support.
"If Perry has one good debate, people are going to stand up and say, 'There, this is the Gov. Perry we know,' " Rothenberg said. "He needs to turn things around, and the sooner the better."
Perry has stumbled in defending his long record as a three-term governor and his stances, including on immigration and Social Security. He compared it to a "Ponzi scheme" with young workers pouring money into a system that will never pay them back in full because it's slowly going broke.
As a border state governor, Perry has opposed building a fence between the United States and Mexico, preferring more boots- on-the-ground methods to secure the border. Yet the large Hispanic population in his state has prompted him to OK in-state college tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants.
Those positions could cost him conservatives, while gaining independent and crossover support.
In Nevada, Perry is competitive with Romney for several reasons.
First, he is from the West and has a strong states' rights governing philosophy that resonates in a state known for its legalized gambling, legal prostitution in most counties and other quirks that make the Silver State unique.
Also, Gov. Brian Sandoval last month endorsed Perry, who quietly supported Nevada's first Hispanic governor during his 2010 campaign when Perry headed the Republican Governors Association. Highly popular, Sandoval could help Perry gain more GOP support, independents and Latinos.
Already, sight unseen, Perry did well in the most recent survey of potential GOP caucus goers in Nevada. The GOP poll taken at the end of August by Magellan Strategies showed Perry with 29 percent support compared with 24 percent for Romney. A healthy 19 percent were undecided.
Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, won support from 7 percent, followed by Paul and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., at 6 percent each, and Newt Gingrich at 5 percent. Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum had 1 percent each.
ROMNEY IN LEAD
Sig Rogich, a Nevada political guru who advised 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, said Romney will be tough to beat in Nevada because of his head start. He also has the endorsement of GOP leaders such as U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who both backed him in 2008.
The state's politically active Mormon community also is expected to line up behind their fellow churchgoer Romney as they did in 2008. They accounted for one-quarter of Romney's GOP caucus support last time with more than nine out of 10 Mormons picking Romney, according to exit polls.
The Texas governor, meanwhile, is far behind Romney in hiring staff in Nevada, announcing a state director and deputy just last week to start recruiting a volunteer corps key to retail politics.
Romney's biggest challenge is to win over conservatives who object to his passing a health care law in Massachusetts similar to the reform Obama passed and that Republicans want to repeal.
"I think Romney has a significant lead over the rest of the competition," Rogich said. "The conservative side of the party has got problems with him on certain issues. But I think if I had to pick a No. 2, the surprising No. 2 might be Herman Cain right now."
Robert Uithoven, another GOP consultant in Nevada not aligned with any presidential candidate, said all the attention leading up to the Las Vegas debate, however, will be on Perry not Cain. Nevadans have seen and heard Cain often since he has been a popular speaker at conservative meetings here. Perry is the stranger coming to call and the first impression he makes will count greatly -- for or against him.
"The stakes are incredibly high for Perry because he has not had a good debate performance," Uithoven said. "Mitt Romney is incredibly popular in this state. I think this is Romney's comfort zone."
GOP DEBATE OCT. 18
The debate will be co-sponsored by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference, a regional meeting of GOP leaders from across the West that's designed to raise money and excitement for the White House contest.
Las Vegas won the meeting to highlight Nevada's importance in 2012.
Organizers expect 1,000 people to attend the debate, with about 1,000 participating in the three-day conference that follows at The Venetian. At least three presidential candidates -- Perry, Cain and Paul -- are scheduled to speak on Oct. 19, the first day of the conference, with more likely to join them.
Most of Nevada's top GOP leaders will be there, too, including Sandoval, along with national party leaders such as Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Not to be outdone, progressive activists and Democrats scheduled their own meeting in Las Vegas just ahead of the GOP confab.
The Project New West summit meets Oct. 16-18 at the World Market Center, and 400 people are expected to attend. It's focused on the growing political importance of the West, particularly the expanding population of Hispanics and the trend toward more independent voters.
Jill Hanauer, president of Project New West, said the group formed in 2007 and held its first summit in Denver in 2009. Supporters include Democratic organizations, unions and progressive advocacy groups.
Hanauer has worked for the Democratic National Committee as well as former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart. And she helped Democrats take over both houses of the Colorado Legislature in 2004.
"We want to make sure both parties take our voters seriously," Hanauer said. "In 2008, Nevada and the West was critical in the presidential contest, and it's going to be critical again in 2012."
Hanauer said the group picked Las Vegas to meet "because Nevada is representative of what the country's going through right now with high unemployment and housing problems." Nevada's 13.4 percent jobless rate is the worst in the nation and it has the highest home foreclosure rate, too.
OBAMA WON BIG IN 2008
Obama recognizes that, after successfully wooing Nevada in 2008 with more than 20 campaign visits, he needs to persuade the country's most distressed population to stick with him for another term.
He won 55 percent of the vote here last time, beating McCain by a whopping 12 percentage points.
If he can win Nevada, he can likely win back the nation.
A Democratic survey over the summer showed Obama running neck and neck in Nevada in a potential matchup with Romney, while the president could beat Perry and the rest of the GOP field.
The last time Obama visited Las Vegas, on Oct. 22, 2010, he headlined a campaign rally for Reid, who won re-election despite low approval ratings and a year that favored Republicans nationwide.
The Democratic Party machine that Reid built to help Obama win the presidency in 2008 and that put him back in the Senate is still going strong.
The Obama campaign has been organizing through community groups for the past few years, ready to turn the election-year drive back on for 2012.
In April, the campaign reached out to tens of thousands of volunteers to re-engage them, said a Democratic official familiar with Obama's re-election strategy. The volunteers already are registering voters, canvassing neighborhoods and hosting phone banks and house parties, the official said.
Publicly, Obama is pushing hard for passage of his $447 billion jobs plan as the economy remains stagnant and his re-election hinges on a recovery not yet in sight. His re-election argument is that the nation can't go back to the GOP's Wall Street-friendly policies that sank the economy in the first place.
Rogich, the longtime GOP operative, said he expects Obama and the Democrats to once again turn out their core supporters in large numbers in Nevada, including well-organized labor unions.
"You can't count an incumbent president out," Rogich said. "People vote their pocketbooks, and so Romney should have the edge. But you can't count Obama out."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.