RENO – Hal and Marlane Huffaker drove 200 miles to Reno from their home in Concord, Calif., to join the growing brigades of weekend political warriors intent on ousting President Barack Obama from the White House and replacing him with Republican Mitt Romney.
The battleground is Nevada, a swing state that could decide the election, not California, where Obama is expected to win and where the candidates mainly visit to pick up campaign cash, if they drop in at all.
And it’s also not Utah or Idaho or even Arizona – all red states Romney is expected to win on Nov. 6.
No, Nevada is where the 2012 election will be decided, and it is where the action is.
So Republicans from surrounding states are streaming across the state line. As many as 500 gathered over the weekend to hit the phones and go door-to-door around Las Vegas. It’s an effort the GOP hopes will overcome a home-field advantage for Democrats, who can rely on paid union forces and an intimidating voter registration advantage.
Popular New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez was brought in Saturday to rally the Republicans, the latest out-of-state surrogate or high-profile Nevada politician sent to rally both local campaign workers and outsiders.
Two weeks ago, it was U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican in a tight race to return to the Senate, who gave a pep talk to 120 volunteers from the San Francisco Bay Area before they fanned out through Reno-area neighborhoods. The volunteers were fed bagels for breakfast and tacos for lunch, but otherwise paid their own hotel and transportation costs.
Meanwhile, Heller’s opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., is thanking Culinary Local 226 for its help.
"We figure this is a swing state and we’ve got a chance of winning here," said Marlane Huffaker, a conservative who joined her husband in September for her first weekend campaigning east of the Sierra Nevada in Reno. "I think Romney’s going to win. And I think he’s going to make a difference. I think he clearly has the better answers. This president has been a terrible failure."
The Romney campaign and "Team Nevada," which is coordinating the GOP ground game for Republican candidates on the ticket, is counting on outside help and greater GOP enthusiasm in the Silver State to upset Obama, who easily won here in 2008 but is now just edging out Romney.
Chris Carr, the Romney campaign’s state director, is a veteran of Nevada politics hired in the spring to lead the election effort here. In the 2010 campaign cycle, he worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee and focused on targeted races, including Republican Rep. Mark Amodei’s special election last year. Carr was executive director of the Nevada GOP in 2004, when President George W. Bush won the Battle Born state.
After 2004, however, the GOP’s state operation suffered. This past year the party has been torn by internal rivalries, prompting the Republican National Committee to essentially take over.
The big push by Carr and Team Nevada began on May 29, the day Romney clinched the GOP presidential nomination. Romney campaigned for the first time with Gov. Brian Sandoval at a furniture warehouse owned by a woman who backed Obama four years ago. And then Romney raised $2 million at a private fundraiser with Donald Trump, the hotel mogul, reality TV personality and infamous Obama critic.
Sandoval in the coming days will become more openly involved in the Romney campaign, according to GOP insiders. Until now, he’s played a behind-the-scenes role. But his appeal as the state’s first elected Hispanic governor could win votes in the Latino community.
Under Carr’s leadership, Republicans have made 1.5 million voter contacts in the state, meaning that many attempts – successful or not – have been made to reach each potential voter. Carr said the big change this election is a move to knock on more doors – about 330,000 so far in Nevada – instead of relying mostly on phone banks and mail.
"As good as we were in ’04, we’re further along right now as far as the ground game than we were in ’04," Carr said in an interview. "How we counter what the Democrats are doing is with our local volunteers. And we have deployments coming in from four or five different states" along with the recent addition of paid walkers.
FOCUS ON EARLY VOTERS
In the past, the national Republican Party thought it was good enough to drop into a state and make a big push in the 72 hours before Election Day. Now, there’s an election day every day for two weeks, thanks to early voting. And absentee ballots already being filled out will account for 7 percent to 8 percent of the final tally.
Because more than half of Nevadans vote early, the election can be all but won or lost well before Nov. 6 – the day union forces get out the buses and literally drive Democratic supporters to the polls.
"We, as a national party, everybody understands the importance of early voting," Carr said, adding that he’s seeing more enthusiasm on the ground in recent months. "I think a lot of this comes from the fact that the campaigns are unified. I think we’ve done a good job of working together. We’re definitely winning the enthusiasm gap."
Generally, turnout is higher in presidential election years, at about 80 percent. And Republicans tend to go to the polls at a higher rate than Democrats, accounting for a turnout edge of 4 percent to 6 percent.
Yet the Democratic Party machine built by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is one of the nation’s strongest. The Democratic Senate majority leader won re-election in 2010 thanks to that organizational advantage, and by having a much weaker opponent in Republican Sharron Angle. Democrats also made historic gains in 2008, registering 100,000 new voters, to turn the state blue for Obama.
Democrats look skeptically at the GOP effort, believing it’s too little, too late for Romney.
The Democrats say they have the votes for Obama to win, and that Obama’s coattails will make the difference in close down-ballot races such as Berkley’s effort to unseat Heller.
The Obama campaign, too, has busloads of volunteers coming in from California and other states. And young campaign workers have been camped out in the homes of Nevada supporters for months. But the campaign also opened offices here in 2007, and never really turned out the lights. It is counting on years of community organizing as well as the big Democratic voter registration.
In Clark County alone, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 125,000 as of Friday evening – just surpassing the 2008 advantage – and by more than 85,000 voters statewide out of nearly 1.2 million total.
Jeremy Bird, the national field director for the Obama campaign, expressed confidence the Democratic machine will prevail because the president’s longtime volunteers know their neighbors and will get them to the polls.
"When you’ve built an organization over these years, these people know their voters," Bird said. "We know who these folks are. When they register a voter, they go and turn them out. We’ve been talking to them. We’ve been persuading them. And that’s what we do best. It’s a big advantage over something built at the last minute."
Bird is at the center of a sophisticated war room that keeps detailed statistics on Nevada and a handful of other states in play through Election Day.
A campaign memo last week showed Nevada Democrats outpacing Republicans in every measure, from doubling voter registration over Republicans to beating the GOP in absentee ballot requests (nearly 21,700 and counting), although Republicans claimed an edge for mail-in ballots that bank early votes.
The Democrats are also far outpacing Republicans in registering Hispanics, a key voting bloc in Nevada. Nearly 214,000 Hispanics are registered to vote this year, a 15 percent increase over four years ago, the campaign said. Of the total, more than 123,350 are Democrats and more than 41,300 are Republicans, a 3-to-1 advantage.
The Obama campaign further breaks down the new Nevada registered voters: 40 percent are younger than 30 and 79 percent are black or Latino, and also younger than 30 – voters the president attracts most.
"We’ve invested for years and we’ve invested early in battleground states," Bird said. "You can’t fake a real ground game."
Carr, the Romney Nevada director, said the GOP ground game is real and it’s not ignoring any voter. Last month, the campaign opened an office in the heart of Latino East Las Vegas, sending Romney’s Spanish-speaking son Craig to meet supporters. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has made three visits to Southern Nevada, where he grew up and has a Latino following.
"I’m proud that we as a party are reaching out to the Latino community because it’s past due," Carr said, noting the campaign has four Hispanic outreach directors, including three in Las Vegas and one in Reno. "They obviously are very important in this region of the country."
Carr was involved in Bush’s campaign when the Republican won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.
The Republican enthusiasm seems to be matching the Democratic push to re-elect Obama.
In Reno a couple of weeks ago dozens of the Bay Area volunteers wore T-shirts saying, "Nobama Nevada" in an outline of the Silver State. Leonard Stone of El Granada was among them.
"If we bring 100 people here and they walk precincts, we might change the outcome," said Stone, an organizer who said the Bay Area troops would return the last weekend of October, just before the election. "We can make a difference."
Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.