Republicans pick Las Vegas for western states leadership conference

Republican presidential candidates just got another reason to put Nevada on their must-visit list.

The Republican National Committee agreed to hold the Western States Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas this fall for the first time since 1995, when it drew five GOP White House hopefuls and more than 1,000 activists from 13 states.

The Nevada GOP also is hoping to hold an early straw poll and arrange a presidential debate around the meeting, which would raise the stakes even higher, Republican National Committeeman Bob List said Monday.

"We think this will attract all the presidential candidates to Nevada," said List, a former Nevada governor and longtime party leader. "We're trying to do everything we can to bring the contenders here."

Nevada already is getting more attention in the upcoming White House sweepstakes after Republicans agreed to hold the first presidential caucus in the West here in February 2012, after voting in Iowa and New Hampshire and just ahead of South Carolina's balloting.

The results will be binding. And Nevada's delegates to the Republican National Convention will be divided among the top vote-getters instead of awarded on a winner-take-all basis, a system devised to attract more candidates.

The decision to hold the Western conference in Las Vegas came after the Republican National Committee on Friday voted in a new chairman to lead the party and its effort to oppose President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012.

After several rounds of balloting, the committee's 168 members approved as its new chairman Reince Priebus, former GOP chief in Wisconsin. He replaced Michael Steele, who lost amid complaints about his leadership and weak party financing.

List was among Priebus' early supporters and backed the new national GOP leader from the first ballot. List also was key in pushing for Nevada to host this year's Western conference, which like other regional meetings serves as a platform for White House candidates and helps the party raise money.

"Subject to finalizing the details, that was approved," List said. "It really is a great thing for Nevada."

The Western States Republican Leadership Conference will be held in September or October.

List and other Nevada Republican leaders plan to meet privately this week in Reno to discuss conference details, including the idea of a straw poll to test candidates' early strength and a debate to attract more national media attention.

Robert Uithoven, a GOP consultant, said that other early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina already have arranged presidential debates and that Nevada must step up its organizing if the state wants to be a real player.

"Really, to get candidates interested in our early caucus, a debate should be scheduled. That's one of the ways to get candidates invested in the state," Uithoven said. "It's yet to be seen how the caucus will turn out, but we're off to a good start."

In 2008, Nevada won attention because of its Democratic Party caucus with Obama and his primary rival, Hillary Clinton, both heavily contesting the state. Republicans held a nonbinding caucus, but most GOP candidates skipped campaigning here, ceding the state to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who is a likely 2012 contender as well.

Although the November 2012 vote is far away, at least one early survey of Nevada voters suggests Obama probably would win the state against several potential GOP contenders with Romney the toughest foe.

A Public Policy Polling survey showed Obama edging Romney, 47 percent to 46 percent.

In other possible matchups, Obama would defeat former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee 51-41, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 51-40 and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, 52-39.

The Jan. 3-5 survey of 932 Nevada voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

None of these Republicans or other major potential GOP contenders have formally announced a White House bid.

In 1995, the last time the Western GOP leadership conference was held in Las Vegas, then-President Bill Clinton was running for re-election, and the Republican field was fairly crowded. The eventual GOP nominee, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, spoke during the four-day meeting. Other candidate-speakers included then-Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, businessman Steve Forbes and then-Rep. Bob Dornan of California.

Two other 1995 conference speakers are potential 2012 presidential contenders: Gingrich, who was speaker of the House , and Haley Barbour, who was Republican national chairman at the time.

Then as now, conservatives in the Republican Party were on the rise and shaping the GOP agenda. These days, the Tea Party movement is leading the call for smaller government and less spending and taxes.

List said Republicans realize they must bring the Tea Party movement into the main GOP and repair ideological rifts that could hurt any chance of strongly opposing Obama in the general election.

The president is considered to be a talented campaigner and strong fundraiser. Obama has been making moves to the political middle to better position himself for re-election, which he is expected to win if the GOP nominates a candidate who is too far right to appeal to a broad electorate.

"One of the first matters we have to deal with is incorporating the Tea Party movement into the GOP," List said. "It's a matter of being open to new people and some fresh ideas and giving them a seat at the table. They certainly are in full accord with our fundamental principles and we with theirs. Oftentimes, it's just a matter of personalities and pride."

Contact reporter Laura Myers at or 702-387-2919.