Democrats in Nevada stick with Jan. 19

Amid continued uncertainty about the presidential nominating calendar and Nevada’s importance therein, the Nevada Democratic Party on Wednesday announced it’s happy with progress toward the state’s first-ever early caucus effort and “prepared to be nimble” if the contest’s importance is threatened.

Chairwoman Jill Derby implied that Nevada Democrats won’t move their caucuses from Jan. 19 if moves by other states put them third, but they might if Nevada is any further back in line.

“We like where we are, and what we would evaluate is whether or not where we are still provides us with the kind of influence that we want to have in this early pre-window” of nominating contests, Derby said in a Wednesday conference call with reporters.

“We’re watching to see what could happen. If we ended up third, would that be OK with us? Well, we’ll have to see. I don’t think we would want to go any later than that.”

The Democratic National Committee a year ago set a presidential nominating schedule that would put Iowa first, Nevada second, New Hampshire third and South Carolina fourth.

The party forbade other states to have contests before Feb. 5, under penalty of losing convention delegates. Feb. 5 is the “mega-Tuesday” on which more than a dozen states, including delegate-heavy behemoths such as California and Texas, are scheduled to have contests that are expected to amount to a national primary and finalize both parties’ nominees.

However, a head-spinning spate of jockeying by state parties, state legislatures and national parties has left the nominating calendar in total disarray. With Iowa and New Hampshire likely to move so both are ahead of Nevada, South Carolina having at least one of two contests on Nevada’s planned date and Michigan and Florida crashing the early-state party, penalties be damned, no one can claim to know in what order states will select the 2008 presidential nominees.

Nevada Democrats recently joined with their counterparts in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in successfully extracting a promise from the candidates not to campaign in states that try to move up without permission, although the candidates are finding ways around the pledge.

Nevada, Derby said, was chosen to be among the first four contests “for all the right reasons. We’re committed to keeping it there, and we’re prepared to be nimble. Let’s see what happens. But we’re committed to keeping Nevada’s position of influence.”

On Wednesday, Democrats in Michigan and Florida complained that they’re being punished for deviating from DNC prescriptions but Iowa and New Hampshire face no such threats for their plans to change dates.

Derby said that states such as Iowa and New Hampshire that already have permission to be before Feb. 5, in what she called the “pre-window,” will be seen more charitably “than other states jumping into the pre-window.”

Nevada’s first-time effort still faces questions about credibility and relevance, with much riding on the Democrats’ ability to run a smooth contest here. Derby said the party was well on track in that regard.

She said the party has secured 500 caucus sites, hired 25 staffers, conducted training in all 17 counties and is on pace to raise the projected $2 million to pull off the caucus, which is slated to take place at nearly 1,700 sites around the state. She characterized the effort as “almost at 40 percent with five months to go.”

Derby refused, however, to name a target number for turnout. Although party officials initially threw out figures as high as 100,000, or a quarter of the state’s registered Democrats, they now appear to be backing off from any specific figure for fear of seeming to fail if they don’t hit it.

The 100,000 figure now is seen as wildly unrealistic. Democratic insiders point out that Iowa, a state with a long and storied tradition of having nominating caucuses, normally gets about 10 percent turnout and in 2004 got its highest ever with 20 percent.

The first year the Iowa caucuses were held, less than 8 percent of Democrats turned out; if that percentage of Nevada Democrats participate in January, the caucuses would draw about 32,000.

In 2004, with just 17 caucus sites, little organization and a meaningless contest, the nominee had long been decided by the time Nevada Democrats convened, about 10,000 participated in Democratic caucuses in the state.

“We’re aiming for just the highest number that we can get and working hard for that,” Derby said. “We have to prove ourselves, so it’s really important … to make sure we have a great turnout.”

Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan, Washington-based newsletter, said Nevada Democrats are doing the right thing by proceeding apace while they wait to see where the chips fall schedule-wise.

“They have two choices here: stay on track, or wring their hands,” she said. “One seems more productive than the other, so I think they opted for the productive choice.”

Nevada’s inclusion in the four-state candidate pledge was a good sign, she said. “Nobody had to sign a letter saying they wouldn’t set foot in Nevada,” she noted.

As for all the uncertainty in the schedule, Duffy said, “At this point, I’m not making any plans for December and January. Hopefully I can spend the holidays with my family, but I’m not counting on it.”

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