TURN LEFT AT RENO

RENO — When University of Nevada, Reno, freshman Joe O’Gorman registered to vote for the first time this year, he broke from his family’s Republican tradition and registered Democrat so he could vote for Barack Obama for president.

“The Democratic view is of people standing together, not the rich above the poor like the Republicans,” said 18-year-old O’Gorman as he and two newly registered Democratic friends wandered around the arboretum at Reno’s Rancho San Rafael Park. “Everybody in Reno last election supported Bush. Now you drive around town, and you see more Obama signs than McCain signs.”

“A lot of people have moved here from the Bay Area,” said 61-year-old Samuel Knipmeyer as he exited from a rose garden. “We have a lot of businesses with problems. Obama will win here, and he will win in Nevada and become president.”

The winds of change have been blowing in Reno and Washoe County. For the first time in 30 years, Democrats now are the majority party in the state’s northern population center.

Of 12 people interviewed at Rancho San Rafael, not one said they were voting for Republican John McCain for president.

At the close of registration for the general election, Democrats had 92,203 registered voters in Nevada’s second most populous county, compared with 90,917 Republicans. That’s an advantage of nearly 1,300 voters.

Two years ago, there were 16,510 more Republicans than Democrats in Washoe County.

That the area was rabid Republican showed in the November 2006 election, when Washoe voters chose Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Gibbons over Democrat Dina Titus by a vote of 63,057 to 47,296.

Obama’s campaign has been out registering people for months, particularly younger voters, while the Republicans have made only a scant registration effort, according the Amy Curtis-Webber, the Washoe County Democratic Party executive director.

She said Obama enthusiasts also have been touting the convenience of early voting to students and others. UNR students can vote in the student union on campus.

“We are seeing a pendulum swing that occurs every 20 years or so when the party in power declines,” Curtis-Webber said.

“People aren’t happy with the economic situation. They aren’t happy with the war. They don’t see McCain as being on their side.”

Fred Lokken, a Republican who teaches political science at Truckee Meadows Community College, sees the same thing. He said it is hard to find students in his classes who support McCain.

“Here you have someone 72 and someone in his mid- 40s running,” he said, noting Obama’s relative youth. “Who is someone 18 or 19 more likely to connect with?”

For young people today, Barack Obama has the same aura as John Kennedy had in the 1960 presidential race, Lokken said.

But the Republican Party in Nevada also has not done a good job registering voters, Lokken said.

“Where the hell were the Republicans this year?” he asked. “The Republican Party in this state seems to have given up, while the Democrat Party is doing what a party is supposed to do. They also were flush with money.”

Troy Melin, the president of UNR Student Democrats, said students are registering Democratic because Obama has caught their imagination.

“He has energized students more than any other candidate since Bill Clinton,” Melin said. “This year is going to be different. This is the most important election my generation has seen.”

Heidi Smith, the Republican Party chairwoman in Washoe County, attributes the surge of Democratic registration to the influx of people to Reno from the traditionally liberal Bay Area. She said 49,000 Bay Area transplants have arrived in the Reno area in the last six years.

“I looked at the demographics, and I knew this was going to happen,” Smith said. “Our job is to get out the Republican vote.”

Smith said Republicans traditionally have turned out to vote on Election Day in higher percentages than Democrats, particularly younger Democrats. Early voting results, however, show nearly twice as many Washoe County Democrats as Republicans have voted so far.

Smith contends the vast majority of UNR professors are leftists, and some students fear mentioning aloud that they favor McCain.

“I have a kid who works here who has an Obama sticker on her car,” she said. “She says that is the only way to do it at UNR or your car could be vandalized.”

That said, Smith concedes the Democrats have a well-funded organization that has beaten the GOP in new registrations.

Although Obama may be picking up voters in Washoe County, Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert does not think it will affect Republicans farther down the ballot.

“All politics is local,” said Gansert, R-Reno. “The races that are closer to the people — the local races, the congressional race — in these people will judge the candidate, not the party.”

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel @reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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