McCain bad for Nevada -- but he'll still win here

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, comes across as feisty, pragmatic and independent-minded. Although McCain agrees with George W. Bush on many issues, such as the Iraq war, he contrasts favorably with the doctrinaire president.

I don't think the Republicans have had a presidential candidate like McCain since the last nominee from Arizona, Barry Goldwater.

Of course, McCain's maverick streak has alienated many within his party who would prefer that he toe the ideological line. For example, McCain agreed with most of the positions espoused by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his cohorts during the 1990s but McCain wasn't comfortable with the hyper-partisan, scorched earth strategy, so he didn't join the crusade.

Instead, McCain defied the Gingrich-led partisans by seeking common ground with the devils across the aisle. He co-sponsored legislation with Democrats on issues such as campaign finance reform and immigration.

But make no mistake: Contrary to the claims of his right-wing critics, McCain is a conservative. In fact, as Jonathan Rauch argues persuasively in the May issue of The Atlantic magazine, McCain makes a stronger claim to the true conservative mantle, as espoused by 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke, than most of the flame-throwers in the forefront of the party.

In an earlier age, McCain might have been described as a worthy opponent, someone you scrap with during the day and have a drink with in the evening.

That said, McCain would be an inferior choice for president at this time in history. It's clear to me the Democratic candidates better represent the direction the country wants and needs to go in the wake of the disastrous Bush administration.

McCain also would be particularly bad for Nevada. During a brief stop in Las Vegas recently, he defended two long-standing positions that can't possibly sit well with a significant majority of Nevada voters.

First, McCain defended his support for building a high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. McCain seems to embrace the "it's gotta go somewhere, why not the wasteland of Nevada" position that so enrages those of us who have made this state home and do not consider it a wasteland. Despite the fact that McCain has for decades lived in the West and represented an adjacent state, he doesn't seem to grasp the complexity of the nuclear waste issue or the legitimate scientific reasons why Yucca Mountain is not a suitable location. His vague suggestion that he's open to new scientific information on Yucca Mountain was about as convincing as Bush's professed commitment to "sound science" in 2000.

McCain also defended his support for a ban on college sports betting. He said he introduced such a bill several years ago after college coaches told him of "the enormous temptation before their young athletes." On this issue, too, McCain seems unable or unwilling to look beyond the surface.

Sports book directors and state gaming regulators make a compelling case that Nevada's system is a benefit to the cause rather than a detriment. Nevada sports books are the most likely agents to identify and expose the fixing of a collegiate contest. This, in fact, happened when a point-shaving scheme involving Arizona State basketball players was revealed by Las Vegas sports books that observed unusually heavy bets on several games in 1994.

Here's the frustrating thing: Despite McCain's views on these seemingly huge issues, I predict he'll win Nevada in November.

Nevada Democrats enjoy a registration majority right now, reflecting excitement about the prospect of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton cleaning the neocons out of Washington and withdrawing from Iraq. But voting trends in Nevada in recent years suggest that McCain has an advantage anyway.

Consider our last gubernatorial election. Jim Gibbons, the GOP candidate, handily defeated the Democrat, Dina Titus. Now, neither candidate set the world on fire, but Titus clearly was more knowledgeable and experienced on just about every level.

All Gibbons did was promise to not raise taxes. That's all he did, but it was the ticket to an easy win.

It stands to reason that Nevada voters will overlook McCain's stances on Yucca Mountain and college sports betting in favor of his moderate/conservative worldview. President Bush's pro-nuke position didn't hurt him much in Nevada. And if history means anything (again, look at Gibbons), McCain's military resume will serve him well here.

What will unfold in Nevada, I fear, is a state-level version of the 1972 presidential election, when Republican Richard Nixon trounced Democrat George McGovern during an era when Vietnam War/civil rights-fueled conventional wisdom suggested a liberal landslide.

And just as history shows Nixon to have been a horrible choice, modern-day Nevadans aren't proving to be savvy judges of political character. They elected Gibbons, who seems to be working feverishly to earn the title of Nevada's Worst Governor Ever. He might already be there after just more than one year in office. Nevada also elected Bush twice, and he's made an open-shut case for joining the ranks of the Worst Presidents Ever.

Nevadans who vote for McCain instead of Obama, the most likely Democratic nominee, will be out of step with a rare opportunity to restore idealism and common purpose to the national political discussion. Even worse, they will be voting for the status quo in Iraq, which can't possibly be the best option.

Let's hope Nevada's electoral votes don't stand in the way of a Democratic victory.

A clarification

In last Sunday's column, "UNLV and the Pitfalls of Globalism," I cited CBS television in reporting the enrollment of UNLV to be 18,000. This figure is a slightly outdated tally of the university's count of full-time-equivalent students. A full-time equivalent, or FTE, is calculated by dividing all semester credit hours by what is considered to be a full-time load. For undergraduates, a full-time load is 15 credits. The FTE is a common metric in the academic world. UNLV's FTE total for fall 2007 was 20,021, down 1 percent from fall 2006. If all students are counted, regardless of how many courses they take, UNLV's fall 2007 enrollment was 28,477.

Geoff Schumacher ( is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.