Nevada’s political importance intact, at least until Jan. 20

There’s one essential for survival in the Silver State that’s more important than sunscreen, a line pass at the DMV, and a reliable casino credit line.

It’s a thick skin. Because, to call Nevada home is to have your parentage scoffed at, your sense of morality sniffed at, and your sanity called into account.

To a world of news consumers, Nevada has been a place that undulates with prostitution — and that’s just at the Legislature. Between the all-pervasive casino culture and its related hedonistic subsidiaries, you’d think the seven deadly sins were listed as inalienable rights in our Constitution.

I grew up defending my state from those who sought to question its character. As a newspaperman, I have spilled a sea of ink answering assaults from ignoramuses who labored under the misguided belief Nevada wasn’t the Union’s most majestic locale.

All that is in the past now. At least when it comes to presidential politics, we find ourselves in the spotlight on the national stage saying, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

When Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton flopped in Iowa and needed a late comeback to survive Tuesday in New Hampshire, it only increased the importance of Nevada’s Jan. 19 caucuses. Even if, as the Huffington Post first reported, she plans to increasingly focus on Super Tuesday states, Clinton’s camp will continue to woo Nevadans and tell us just how handsome we are. And intelligent, too. Don’t forget intelligent.

That goes double for Barack Obama and his troops. What the Obama nation lacks in campaign machinery, it hopes to make up for in youthful energy and new voters.

The same goes for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who took a thumping in New Hampshire and sorely needs to do well here. Although most GOP presidential hopefuls are using Nevada as an ATM and campaign jet refueling stop, the bubbly rhetoric about Nevada’s vast importance figures to continue to flow like cheap champagne for another week or so.

With New Hampshire out of the way, we’re going to hear once more how the remaining candidates adore our mountain bluebird, are awed by our desert bighorn, think casino gambling is good and believe to the depth of their souls that Yucca Mountain is bad — and don’t forget to vote on caucus day.

I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.

“Now the road to the White House goes through Nevada,” state archivist Guy Rocha says. “In terms of history, we’ve been a political backwater.”

Rocha means, of course, a breathtaking backwater whose beauty was an acquired taste. In fact, it took candidates from both major parties most of the 20th Century to acquire a taste for visiting Nevada. Other than whistle stops by Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, a booty call by JFK and a stump speech by LBJ, not many presidents, other than Reagan, played the big room in the Silver State.

That began changing with the new century and census, and the decision to move the Democratic caucuses up to Jan. 19 helped us elbow onto the national stage ahead of other states like an obsessed Miss America contestant.

Rocha suspects Nevada may provide the M*A*S*H unit that stops the Clinton campaign’s early hemorrhaging. He finds it difficult to believe she’ll write off a state in which her campaign has invested a bundle.

For Clinton after New Hampshire, “Nevada and South Carolina become really important, even more important than they would have been,” College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green says. “I don’t know that it’s make or break for Hillary out here. I do think, for example, if Obama stomps out here, she’s in serious trouble.”

When UNLV political science professor David Damore looks at Clinton’s Nevada campaign, he sees a superior organization and endorsements, and that combination should be difficult to overcome. But he won’t underestimate Obama’s bounce.

“I think you have a lot of people recalibrating their standing here,” Damore says.

Many of those people have been waiting to see which candidate the Culinary union endorses.

All of which means Nevada is a terribly important state — at least until the morning of Jan. 20.

It’s always good to be adored, but there’s another essential to living in Nevada that’s sure to come in handy in the coming days: A sense of knowing when we’re being hustled.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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