Window of opportunity

Like a rock band on a very odd tour schedule, the presidential race left Iowa on Friday, with a gig in Nevada coming up on the calendar.

Before they come here to put on their best show, trash our hotel rooms and have their way with the locals, the campaigns must play in New Hampshire. With Thursday’s Iowa caucuses out of the way, the presidential candidates are one step closer to Nevada’s first-ever early nominating contest.

And with the way the race is shaping up, both the Democratic and Republican nominations stand to be far from decided before the Jan. 19 Nevada caucuses roll around.

“The outcome in Iowa ensures that the race will be competitive at least through Nevada,” said Kirsten Searer, deputy executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party. “The 11 days between the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucus will be a critical time for a candidate to either break the tie of the first two states or slow the momentum of a candidate who’s won both.”

With just five days between Iowa and Tuesday’s New Hampshire primaries, candidates have scant opportunity to change direction, establish new themes or find new strategies between the two.

But after New Hampshire, those 11 days, an entire week and a half, will allow for plenty of churn before Nevadans get a chance to weigh in.

THE EPICENTER FOR DEMOCRATS

For Democrats, Nevada will be practically the only place to be between Jan. 9 and Jan. 19. They’re not participating in a Jan. 15 Michigan primary, and their South Carolina primary isn’t until Jan. 26. The cable news channel MSNBC is televising a Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Jan. 15 that is all but guaranteed to draw the top candidates.

On Friday, the campaigns of the four top Democrats — Barack Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson — all promised that the candidates would spend substantial time in Nevada after New Hampshire.

“The Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary will build up to a crescendo and motivate Nevadans to take this incredible opportunity to choose the next president,” Searer said. “Eleven days is an eternity at this point in the presidential race. The Nevada caucus is going to come at an extremely pivotal time.”

For the Republicans, Nevada is more iffy. The GOP candidates are competing in Michigan on the 15th, and their South Carolina primary is on the same day as the Nevada caucus, Jan. 19. In general, the Republican candidates have largely ignored Nevada.

Republicans even had a little-noticed contest in Wyoming on Saturday that could be seen as foreshadowing their Nevada caucus: Although the national media and most of the candidates paid it scant attention, one candidate — Mitt Romney, whose second-place finish in Iowa was seen as a setback — made a push there, hoping to chalk up a victory.

Romney won Wyoming easily, with 75 percent support.

“It may seem silly, but the Romney folks are really counting on Wyoming to give them a boost in New Hampshire,” said national political expert Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “They’re going to be shouting it from the rooftops. If they can get any attention for it, it might matter.”

The Nevada Republican Party has been trying to sell that rationale for months now: Come out West and pick up a win. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are the only candidates who have bitten and invested resources in the state.

“If you’re one of those campaigns that didn’t do as well as you wanted to in Iowa, come out to Nevada,” said Zac Moyle, the state GOP’s executive director. “Nevada is still a state that’s starved for attention, and most likely the candidate that wins Nevada will be the candidate that’s spent the most time and effort here.”

Technically, the caucuses and primaries elect delegates, usually on a proportional basis, to the parties’ respective nominating conventions, around Labor Day. There remains a remote possibility that either party could have a brokered convention in which no nominee is settled on before the convention.

However, it’s useless to start counting delegates in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sabato said, because delegates can change their allegiances and the two states have small delegations. Their importance is the direction they show the candidates are heading.

“Momentum affects voters everywhere,” Sabato said. “That’s the big boost from Iowa. Everybody was watching who won and lost.”

STRATEGY KEY FOR REPUBLICANS

On the Republican side, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee beat out Romney in an upset win in Iowa. But Huckabee, whose appeal lies largely with evangelical Christians, is seen as unlikely to prevail in “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire, and his campaign has apparently written off Nevada.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Arizona Sen. John McCain tied for third, Paul got a respectable 10 percent and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, despite his national front-runner status, got just 4 percent and sixth place. That’s six candidates still in the mix, two of them looking for a Nevada bounce amid the chaos of contests.

“This could be Romney’s only chance for an early win,” University of Nevada, Las Vegas political scientist David Damore said of the Nevada caucus. In Iowa, “He got clobbered, considering all that money he spent,” and his prospects in New Hampshire are uncertain.

On the Democratic side, Illinois Sen. Obama won decisively in Iowa and is hoping the resulting momentum steamrolls him through the next several contests and on to the nomination. His campaign believes the Iowa win bodes well for Nevada especially because Nevada’s caucus is modeled closely on Iowa’s.

Unlike a primary, the caucus requires candidates’ supporters to gather at hundreds of different locations around the state at a particular time. Obama turned out unprecedented amounts of new voters, independents and young people in Iowa.

“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned about what happened in Iowa that we think will pay dividends on January 19,” Obama’s national campaign manager, David Plouffe, said. Just like in Iowa, he said, Obama has blanketed Nevada with campaign offices, more than any other candidate, and is working on amassing a captain to herd supporters in every precinct.

“You simply cannot succeed in a caucus without, in this case, well over 1,500 precinct captains,” Plouffe said. “That’s what we’ve been focused on. It’s not sexy, but that’s what wins a caucus.”

New York Sen. Clinton came in third in Iowa, behind former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Like Obama, Edwards’ campaign believes Clinton’s support in Nevada will fall away now that voters see other candidates as viable.

“Now that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have that inevitability to claim, Senator Obama and us are going to be receiving more attention,” Edwards spokesman Adam Bozzi said. “We believe the support has been soft for Clinton, and there are going to be voters out there who are going to reassess.”

The Edwards campaign is nearly tripling its campaign staff with 75 workers coming straight to Nevada from Iowa. Bozzi said the unions that support Edwards have been working hard to mobilize their members to caucus for the former North Carolina senator.

The Nevada Democratic caucuses’ biggest wild card, the endorsement of the Culinary union, is still up in the air. The union plans to announce its chosen candidate Wednesday, kicking off the 11-day post-New Hampshire, pre-Nevada stretch.

CLINTON BACKERS ‘FOCUSED’

Nevada has so far been seen as Clinton’s to lose. She has led all early polling in the state, most recently by 8 percentage points over Obama.

Clinton’s campaign said Friday that its support here is strong and not going anywhere. Supporters, a spokeswoman said, have a new sense of urgency since the Iowa loss.

“Five minutes after the race in Iowa was called, we had someone show up at our Pahrump office, saying, ‘It’s about time I came out and showed my support for Hillary Clinton,’ ” Hilarie Grey said.

The Clinton campaign’s Nevada director, Robby Mook, said, “They’re very passionate, and now they’re very, very focused.”

Mook said the campaign is close to having a captain for every precinct.

“It’s important to point out that Nevada’s a very different state than Iowa,” he said. “Nevadans should be given the opportunity to make their voice heard and pick their own candidate.”

Unlike Iowa, he pointed out, Nevada is a state where Clinton has always had a lead in the polls, rather than starting from behind.

“We feel that we’re going to hold onto our lead,” he said. “In our phone calls to our supporters, they’re all sticking with us.”

Meanwhile, there’s still an outside chance Nevada could represent the first win for a Democratic candidate who didn’t show well in Iowa. That’s what New Mexico Gov. Richardson, who took 2 percent of the Iowa vote, is hoping.

Richardson’s “final four” placement was just enough to get him onstage at Saturday’s ABC debate in New Hampshire, and his campaign argues that the narrowed field puts more focus on him.

Richardson has spent more time in Nevada than any other candidate, hoping his status as the only Westerner and the only Hispanic in the race will appeal to voters here.

“People are going to take a second look at Bill Richardson, and they’re going to like what they see, especially here in Nevada,” spokesman Josh McNeil said. He said there was no question Richardson would stay in the race through Nevada “and past Nevada.”

“You never know what’s going to happen in New Hampshire,” said Sabato, the national expert. “They’re quirky, and they can change the race just like Iowa did. … But there’s so little time after Iowa. Going into Nevada, with 11 days, you could really have a change in momentum.

“There’s more time for it.”

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@ reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2919.

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