Behind closed doors, at invitation-only dinners and in private meetings, a stealth campaign for the U.S. presidency is being waged before a single candidate has formally declared in the 2012 race.
Monday evening, for instance, a small group of Republicans will gather in a private Las Vegas home to chat with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty about his new book. He says it "tells the story of my life." It's a tale few Nevadans know about his blue-collar upbringing, the son of a South St. Paul truck driver who made it into the governor's mansion.
Pawlenty and other potential Republican candidates have a lot of getting-to-know-you work to do in Nevada if they want to compete with Mitt Romney. He is the nominal front-runner in the GOP presidential sweepstakes before the contest has officially begun. The former Massachusetts governor won the party caucus here in 2008 and is aiming for a repeat performance.
"Mitt Romney is a known quantity" in Nevada and across the country, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. Not so Pawlenty. "What Pawlenty's doing is making friends. He's putting his face on the map; that's the main objective."
Romney and Pawlenty are among a crop of hopefuls targeting Nevada as one of four states holding early GOP presidential caucuses in February 2012, after Iowa and New Hampshire and likely ahead of South Carolina.
Others who have been tramping through Nevada include former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and radio talk show host Herman Cain.
Palin, the 2008 vice presidential running mate to U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has visited Nevada often. She spoke in January at the Reno convention of Safari Club International, a gun-rights group of big game hunters.
During swings through the state, Palin, Romney, Cain and Gingrich backed Republican Sharron Angle in her 2010 attempt to beat U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. Angle joined Gingrich in Las Vegas in October, the last time he visited Nevada.
Johnson, a libertarian favorite, was in the state last fall as well. He attended a Las Vegas meeting of proponents for legalizing marijuana. And he traveled to Reno, Carson City and Lake Tahoe for several Tea Party events.
Cain, the former chairman and CEO of Godfather's Pizza, is a popular speaker in Nevada, although he is seen as a long shot for the White House. The Georgian attended a conservative bloggers convention with Angle last fall in Las Vegas. In January, he reached out to possible backers during a Tea Party-sponsored discussion at a community center in Summerlin. This Saturday , he will be the luncheon speaker for the Nevada Republican Men's Club in Las Vegas.
On March 5, Cain will be keynote speaker for a Lincoln Day Dinner at the Venetian hotel-casino in Las Vegas, sponsored by the Clark County Republican Party. The state's GOP leaders are expected to attend, including new Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, and Nevada's two GOP representatives, Dean Heller and Joe Heck, among others.
"They're all starting to parade through," former Nevada Gov. Bob List said of the presidential hopefuls. "There's an incentive for everyone to come in. Just because Romney won last time, doesn't mean he'll win this time. ... I don't mean to be derogatory, but I don't think he has got it locked up at all."
Frank Ricotta, head of the Clark County GOP, said the political landscape has changed with members of the Tea Party movement such as himself looking for more conservative candidates.
A moderate, Romney won the 2008 Nevada caucus thanks mostly to a heavy Mormon vote. Libertarians backed Ron Paul, who finished second and continues to enjoy strong support here.
This time around, Christian conservatives such as Pawlenty stand a good chance in Nevada, Ricotta said. Also, under new GOP rules, delegates will be awarded on a proportional basis instead of winner take all, providing more incentive to compete.
"I would be hard-pressed to say who I would vote for right now," Ricotta said, noting that it's early in the game and the field is far from settled. "I'm waiting to see how this plays out. Romney will probably get some support, and you can't discount Ron Paul. But someone like Pawlenty, who has a strong conservative message and not a lot of baggage, could do pretty well."
Ricotta is among those invited to meet Pawlenty on Monday evening and he plans to attend. The private event isn't a fundraiser, but is aimed instead at giving the Minnesotan a chance to meet people who might support his campaign
"It's a friendraiser," said List, a Republican National Committeeman. "That's where you just meet people you need to know."
Friends in high places, with connections and access to big bank accounts, are the sort White House hopefuls need.
The evening was organized by Mike Slanker, a GOP operative who helped raise money for Sandoval. The last time Pawlenty visited Nevada was in August to attend a private fundraiser for the Republican governor's campaign. Some of the same people who were at Sandoval's event will be at Pawlenty's evening, one participant said.
Romney, too, helped raise money for the new Nevada governor and has kept up campaign contacts here.
Last week, he made another swing through Las Vegas. And he is scheduled to return at the end of March for a GOP Jewish Coalition meeting. Also set to attend is U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., another potential presidential contender.
During Romney's two-day sojourn last Monday and Tuesday, he met privately with dozens of Republican leaders and activists, including former first lady Dema Guinn. She and her late husband, Gov. Kenny Guinn, backed Romney in 2008. He also met with small-business groups and addressed 2,700 executives at the International Franchise Association's convention.
All of the events were closed to the media, a common tactic of potential presidential candidates who want to avoid answering questions and making early gaffes that could trip them up before the starting gun goes off.
In the popular Mexican restaurant Lindo Michoacan on Monday, Guinn said Romney addressed about 40 Republican supporters, talking mostly about jobs and the economy, the No. 1 issue for Nevadans suffering from a deep recession.
"He didn't say he was going to run. He said there might be a possibility," Guinn said. "I think that's the smart thing. I'm just hoping and praying that he does run, and everyone in that room felt the same way."
Later in the evening, Romney met privately in the same restaurant with owners of small businesses. He didn't talk politics but instead asked questions of the group of 15 to 20 people, said Julie Walburn, a Las Vegas real estate agent.
"He didn't have a message. He just listened," said Walburn, who said she isn't involved in politics and hadn't met Romney or other potential contenders before. "I personally was talking about the real estate market here in Las Vegas and all the struggles we've had. I just thought it was great that somebody came and listened instead of just talking."
Nevada has the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation.
On Tuesday, Romney met with money types. But he also found time to have lunch with a fellow Mormon, Brandon Flowers, the frontman for The Killers band. The two dined at The Palms steakhouse at the Forum Shops at Caesars. Flowers has been involved in politics before, backing another prominent Mormon, Reid, for re-election in 2010.
For now, Romney remains the man to beat in Nevada, although he could get competition for the influential Mormon vote here if Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. jumps into the race. A former Utah governor, Huntsman recently announced he is resigning as U.S. ambassador to China in April, prompting speculation he may run for the White House.
A year ahead of the GOP caucus in Nevada, a January survey by Public Policy Polling showed Romney leading the potential field with 31 percent support among likely Republican voters here. Next came Palin at 19 percent, Gingrich at 18 percent, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 14 percent, Paul at 7 percent and others far behind, including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Thune and Pawlenty, each barely registering at 1 percent. Another 8 percent chose "someone else/undecided."
Romney also is the early polling front-runner in New Hampshire, although he appears to be giving Iowa little attention this time around. In 2008, he spent a lot of money, staff and time in Iowa and didn't win, robbing him of momentum.
Huckabee, who won Iowa in 2008, hasn't yet wooed Nevadans and seems focused on the Midwest and the South so far.
Duffy said it is so early that the GOP contest remains wide open -- in Nevada and elsewhere -- partly because the big question is whether any of the Republicans would be strong enough to beat President Barack Obama.
Romney may be running to finish first in Nevada and New Hampshire, but Duffy said his competitors will try to win as many delegates as possible, robbing him of bragging rights and momentum that could carry him toward the GOP nomination.
"Their job is to prevent Romney from getting that big delegate number," she said, suggesting he has the most to lose.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.