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GOP counting on early caucus

If you build it, will they come?

That’s the question for Republicans in Nevada as they plan to hold an early presidential nominating contest next year.

The GOP last month finalized plans to hold caucuses on Jan. 19, the same date the Democrats selected last year. But the move so far has flown under the radar.

That will change, said Pete Ernaut, a Reno lobbyist and political consultant who is chairman of the caucus effort. “Exactly what we hoped would happen is beginning to happen,” he said, pointing to the fact that one of the top Republican candidates, Sen. John McCain, made Nevada a stop on his national tour announcing his candidacy.

“The whole prize was to get the attention of the candidates so they would start building grass-roots teams here, and that’s happening,” Ernaut said.

Whether that’s wishful thinking on Ernaut’s part remains to be seen. None of the Republican contenders has paid staff in Nevada at this point, and McCain is the only one who has truly campaigned in the state.

Most national media coverage of the Republican presidential campaign mentions only Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Representatives of two of the three major Republican candidates were unaware of Nevada’s place on the calendar when contacted last week.

In August 2006, the Democratic National Committee, pushed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., moved Nevada in between Iowa, which is scheduled to hold presidential nominating caucuses Jan. 14, and New Hampshire, slated to hold a primary on Jan. 22.

The significance of the move became apparent in February, when almost all the Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Carson City for a forum that served to open the campaign season nationally.

All the hoopla prompted Ernaut to call for Republicans to create their own spectacle lest they be overshadowed in the general election.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republican National Committee doesn’t dictate when states hold their contests but leaves it up to state parties. Both parties discourage states from holding contests before Feb. 5, the “Giga-Tuesday” on which as many as 20 states, including such electoral giants as California and Texas, are planning to hold primaries or caucuses.

Ernaut first convinced the Nevada Republican Party to move up to Feb. 7, but GOP activists said Nevada would still get lost in the shuffle and advocated moving the contest up to the same early date as the Democrats.

Under RNC bylaws, by going before Feb. 5, Nevada will lose half of its delegates to the national party convention next year. But the state party decided it was worth it because modern nominating conventions tend to rely on momentum generated by the successive contests rather than a truly contested vote of delegates.

“When you really think about it, Iowa isn’t so special,” Ernaut said. “Iowa made themselves part of this mix by going out and being first. Now Nevada is in that mix as well.”

The caucus effort now has a paid director, Hans Gullickson, an Iowan who was the executive director of the Colorado Republican Party. Ernaut said he and Gullickson are putting together a plan and budget for the effort and will begin raising money “in earnest” once it is finalized, which he said would happen in the next week.

Ernaut estimated the caucus’ price tag at $750,000 to $1.5 million.

Nevada’s not the only state that’s had the idea to raise its political profile by jumping into the early process. Earlier this month, the Florida Legislature scheduled a Jan. 29 primary. Other states could also move their contests; meanwhile, the New Hampshire secretary of state may move that state’s primary up to preserve its primacy, which could prompt Iowa to move even earlier. Some election watchers believe the nominating process might actually start in 2007.

Given the uncertainty, campaigns may be hanging back, said Republican political consultant Ryan Erwin.

“There are still a number of states that are threatening to move up but haven’t yet,” he said. “If I were running one of these national campaigns, I’d keep my powder dry before I committed resources to any state.”

Fueling the uncertainty is the spectral presence of Republicans who haven’t yet decided whether they’re running, notably former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, a star of NBC’s “Law & Order.”

One national political watcher said he wouldn’t be surprised if the candidates declined to commit much to Nevada at all. Just because Nevada is putting on a show doesn’t mean the rest of the country will watch, said Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.

“These guys have way too much going on already,” Cook said of the presidential candidates. “They didn’t need another early state. Iowa and New Hampshire and raising money is plenty.”

Cook, who also was unaware the Nevada Republicans were holding a caucus the same day as the Democrats when contacted, said he doubted either side would put much emphasis on the Silver State.

“Just because it’s on the calendar doesn’t guarantee it’s going to get a lot of attention,” he said. “I think Nevada’s going to be a fizzle. The focus will be on surviving Iowa and New Hampshire, then getting to the Feb. 5 states.”

It appears that Nevada is attracting more attention than most states, but not as much as the other early states. The Campaign Tracker feature on the Washington Post’s Web site says Nevada has hosted 49 presidential campaign events since the beginning of 2007, the vast majority of them visits from Democrats.

That’s far fewer than Iowa and New Hampshire, each of which has had almost 200 events, or South Carolina, which has had more than 100. But it’s more than big states like New York (32 events) and Texas (36 events), and far more than other states in the region, such as Arizona (12) and Utah (4).

Nevada Republican officials said the Republican campaigns are already showing more interest in Nevada. State party Chairwoman Sue Lowden pointed to McCain’s announcement visit to Elko, which was followed by a campaign visit to Reno and fundraiser in Las Vegas a week later.

“If the other candidates are seeing this and noticing this, and I think they are, they will be here equally as much,” she said.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is in the process of hiring staff in Nevada, she said, and “I don’t think they’d be doing that unless we had moved our caucus up.”

Lowden said candidates have long come to Las Vegas to raise money, but this time they will have to reach beyond the big check-writers to the humble rank and file.

“We know they’re taking hundreds of thousands of dollars out of Nevada, and that’s fine; we’re a very generous state,” she said. “But we need them to stay longer and talk to regular Republicans.

“We’ve watched the video of Iowa and New Hampshire for years, and we’ve been envious of the town hall meetings and living room meetings the presidential candidates are known to do in those early states. I’m hopeful that now we’ll have that kind of contact here.”

Representatives of the three major campaigns — McCain, Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — all said they were taking an interest in Nevada, but didn’t know when they’d be here next.

“We’re prepared to compete in Nevada, regardless of the primary date,” Romney spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said. “The governor will have a presence in Nevada as the primary calendar gets under way. We will be prepared to compete in Nevada on the way to winning the nomination.”

Romney was in Las Vegas in March for a private fundraiser. He has announced a roster of Nevada supporters that includes former Gov. Kenny Guinn and former Rep. Barbara Vucanovich. Pompei said the campaign planned to have Nevada staff within a few weeks and Romney would visit within the next month.

Giuliani raised the most Nevada money of any candidate, Democratic or Republican: $583,200 in the first three months of the year. He has dropped in at a Costco in Reno and a Target in Las Vegas, but hasn’t held formal campaign events in the state.

“We always have had a focus on Nevada, and we always intended to have a strong organization there,” Giuliani campaign spokesman Jarrod Agen said. “We intend to campaign aggressively in Nevada.”

Agen said the campaign has no plans to hire Nevada staff and has not scheduled its next visit here.

Similarly, McCain doesn’t have plans to return since his recent spate of visits, but the Arizonan will be back “soon,” probably in the next month, spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said.

“It’s early in the process, and each state is talking about moving their primary,” Buchanan said. “In the end, Nevada’s always going to be important to the senator and his campaign. We’re going to be back in Nevada, and we’ll continue to campaign in all the early primary states. Nevada is on that short list.”

One way Nevada Democrats have enticed candidates is with “cattle call” events like the February forum in Carson City.

Ernaut said he hoped to arrange candidates’ forums in Las Vegas and Northern Nevada, and “if we get real lucky, we could be the site for a debate.”

Another question about the Nevada caucus is what kind of Republican will appeal to base voters here. Nevada Republicans are seen as putting more emphasis on the party’s ideals of fiscal restraint and libertarianism, and less emphasis on hot-button social issues such as abortion.

“We don’t have a huge bloc of evangelical Christian voters like Iowa or South Carolina,” Ernaut said.

At the same time, Nevada has a larger population of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than Eastern states do. Romney’s Mormonism has inspired much parsing on the national stage, but in Nevada it will likely be taken in stride by voters or even be an asset.

These battling urges in the Nevada Republican electorate are perhaps embodied by the state’s Republican governor, Jim Gibbons, a non-observant Mormon who is pro-choice.

Democrats are hoping their early Nevada caucus will lead to the nomination of a candidate who has appeal beyond the East Coast and Midwest.

Similarly, Nevada Republicans’ influence in the process will prepare the eventual nominee to make a pitch for the battleground states of the West, Ernaut said.

“It’s just a simple game of mathematics,” he said. “Given the numbers of electoral votes and how codified they are in certain regions, the region that’s most likely to determine the next president is the West.”

The presidential candidates will figure out Nevada’s new date on the calendar soon enough, he said.

“It’s the second caucus in the nation,” Ernaut said. “They may not be paying attention now, but they will. Never underestimate the power of momentum in politics.”

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