When President Barack Obama hunkered down for three days at Lake Las Vegas for debate prep last year, his entourage had a poor first impression of the “palm-fringed sprawl of unfinished lots, half-built homes and desiccated golf courses.”
“It looks like we’re in Venice after the Zombies have taken over,” thought Obama spokesman Jay Carney as the team pulled up outside the Westin Lake Las Vegas, where the president stayed.
That’s just one Nevada-related insider tidbit in “Double Down,” a new book about the 2012 presidential race written by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
The book also delves into U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s much-repeated — ultimately proved false — accusation that GOP nominee Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years.
And the 499-page tome shows how Las Vegas Sands Corp. boss Sheldon Adelson almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s campaign alive until he was trounced in the Feb. 4 Nevada caucus, where Romney’s overwhelming victory signaled the beginning of the end of the GOP primary race.
“After New Hampshire, Boston (Romney’s campaign headquarters) had believed the race might be over,” the authors wrote of Romney’s victory in the first-in-the-nation primary. “After Nevada, certainty took hold.”
Adelson donated $20 million to Winning Our Future, a political action committee that backed Gingrich. Later, Adelson switched his allegiance to Romney after Gingrich dropped out of the race. The Sands boss then donated $30 million to Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Romney.
Nevada was the site of key turning points in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Romney, who lavished attention on the Silver State, spent several days campaigning here ahead of the Feb. 4 caucus, fearing that Gingrich might do well with Adelson’s backing.
Adelson’s money helped fund the PAC that released a 28-minute video called the “King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town.” It portrayed Romney, who founded the investment firm, as a heartless job killer. The PAC also fed negative story after negative story about the former corporate executive.
At a dinner the night before Nevada’s Feb. 4 caucus, Adelson gave tribute to Gingrich, the former House speaker and a conservative favorite, according to the book.
“Adelson rose and offered him a heartfelt tribute, talking about what a great friend to Israel he had been, how he would make ‘a fantastic president,’ ” the book recounts.
Yet Gingrich’s hopes were dashed after he was badly beaten by Romney, who got 50 percent of the vote compared with Gingrich’s second place at 21 percent.
Gingrich gave a 22-minute news conference, sounding defiant instead of giving a concession speech. He said he would fight all the way to the GOP national convention in Tampa, Fla. He saw his path to victory running through the South, and “he predicted his resurgence and its timing with demented certitude,” the book reads.
One of the strangest Nevada moments in the campaign came two days before the Republican caucus when New York developer Donald Trump endorsed Romney in Las Vegas.
Romney had wooed Trump, although he and his campaign had mixed feelings about the reality TV star because some in the political class saw him as a joke, according to the book. Also, Trump was an unrepentant birther, repeatedly challenging Obama to prove he was born in the United States.
“Romney was aware that hitching his wagon to Trump entailed political risks,” the book said.
Trump initially suggested he endorse Romney in Florida, another battleground state. But a Newhouse poll suggested it would be smarter to do it in Nevada.
“Trump wasn’t popular in either place, but he was less unpopular in the Silver State,” the book said.
Trump pushed for a “splashy event” at his off-Strip Trump International Hotel, but the Romney camp handled logistics and made the setting “as drab as possible,” the book said. It was basically a plain podium with a media horde sitting in chairs, TV cameras lined up, tripod to tripod.
The night before, somebody had leaked to the national media that Trump would endorse Gingrich — a story the Romney camp thought possible considering Trump’s unpredictability. Romney wondered whether he was “being played.”
“Romney’s doubts didn’t fully abate until he and (his wife) Ann saw Trump in the flesh in his hotel suite that morning,” the book recounted.
“Biggest crowd of press you’ve ever gotten!” he bragged to Romney.
“I’m not taking questions,” Romney told Trump as they rode the elevator to the event. “You can take questions.”
“Team Romney had no idea what Trump was going to say as he took the podium,” the book recounted. “Mitt and Ann gazed on, arms stiff at their sides, frozen half-smiles on their faces. Watching the spectacle on TV in Boston, Gail Gitcho, the campaign’s communications director, shook her head and thought, ‘This looks like a hostage situation.’”
It was over in minutes.
“There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life,” Romney joked. “This is one of them.”
Gingrich, meanwhile, was hiding out at Adelson’s Palazzo, plotting his future, according to the book. He didn’t last much longer, however.
Obama had his own stomach-churning moments in Nevada, which the president visited more than a dozen times during the election year and two dozen times as president.
The three days of debate preparation at Lake Las Vegas were a disaster.
“Oh God, he sounds like Harry Reid,” fretted an Obama adviser.
Reid, not known for his speaking style, did a lot for Obama during the campaign, softening Romney up for defeat. It was payback for the president’s help in the Senate majority leader’s 2010 re-election.
Reid hurt Romney by repeatedly accusing him of not paying taxes. He never revealed the name of the Bain investor who told him that. The book said it was Jon Huntsman Sr., the father of Jon Huntsman Jr., who had dropped out of the GOP primary. The elder Huntsman denies it.
“Harry’s just like a dog with a bone,” Obama is said to have noted with approval. “He’s not going to let go of this.”
Still, Obama wasn’t in such a good mood while preparing for debate, with his advisers telling him he was too pedantic and too much in the weeds on topics.
“I hate this,” he told his staffers, according to the book.
He was holding mock debates each evening with then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is now secretary of state. With each performance, the president seemed to get worse.
“His head is in the wrong place,” said Ron Klain, one of his advisers. “This isn’t gonna be a good night.”
Obama kept assuring his team he would do well in the Denver debate.
“When it’s real, I’ll dial it up,” the president said.
But Obama’s performance was so bad that Romney rose in the polls and the Obama team feared a loss, according to the authors.
Romney knew he had scored and saw victory in his grasp.
“Yeah, it was fun,” Romney told one adviser.
The Obama team met into the early morning hours. The next day, the president’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, told him he had to do better.
“I got it. I got it,” the president replied.
The rest is history: Obama did better in the following two debates. And he defeated Romney in Nevada and nationwide to win a second term, that awful Lake Las Vegas training ground relegated to a palm-fringed bad memory.
Contact reporter Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.