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Caucus calendar has Democratic campaigns working up a sweat

Once temperatures hit triple digits, Southern Nevadans are generally preoccupied with keeping cool, either by heading out of town or sticking close to the air conditioning.

Summer is about as welcome to political campaigns as Christmas, when voters are typically too busy shopping and celebrating to attend fundraisers or rallies. Yet the brave new presidential election calendar, which made Nevada’s Democratic caucus the second in the nation, is threatening to keep the heat on local voters through the hottest part of the year. How else to explain last week’s continued Democratic frenzy here?

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson released his Nevada campaign schedule as if the Silver State were just another jurisdiction. In fact, the information just as easily could have been dubbed Richardson’s national schedule.

At this point in the caucus calendar, Richardson has made more trips, spent more time, done more media and held more events in Nevada than any other candidate. It’s fair to say the underdog Richardson needs a very good showing here on Jan. 19 to continue any hopes of securing the Democratic nomination. I’d say he needs a close second-place finish to buoy him for New Hampshire, South Carolina and the Feb. 5 “Giga Tuesday” to follow.

On Wednesday, Richardson began his day early, appearing on KVBC-TV’s morning show and KNPR radio’s “State of Nevada” before attending a series of public campaign events. He toured an elementary school and spoke to students. Then he spoke to educators, union activists and gay Democrats.

Between speeches, he launched his campaign’s canvass by personally knocking on two doors. Canvassing, when a candidate or volunteer literally walks a precinct to drum up support, typically occurs in the weeks prior to the actual vote. It’s a critical component to getting voters out to the polls.

But caucus day is still seven months away.

Perhaps Richardson, who will not have as much money to spend as Sens. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, is hoping to get his foot in the door now to stave off his competitors’ future TV ads. A voter is more likely to remember that face-to-face time.

But just as it may be too early (not to mention too hot) to dispatch supporters to knock on doors, it’s also impossible to envision this type of grass-roots campaigning on the presidential level. This is not a simple state Assembly race, mind you; it’s several key states in three time zones with diverse populations and very different individual issues.

Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, is piling on with a traditional campaign that has one very nontraditional asset: On Tuesday, her campaign announced the endorsement of state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus. Titus, also the state’s national Democratic committeewoman, can still muster some of the apparatus of her failed campaign for governor last year.

The Titus announcement came on the eve of a visit to Las Vegas by Obama’s wife, Michelle.

Even as Michelle Obama was working a crowded room at the Cambridge Community Center, the Clinton campaign was preparing for its own spousal visit. Bill Clinton is scheduled to hold a fundraiser here for his wife later this month.

Way back in the old days of 2004, we didn’t really get to meet a candidate’s spouse or children until a party’s national convention.

But in 2007, they’re all fanning out. Sen. Chris Dodd’s wife, who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was in Las Vegas recently to go to church with state Sen. John Lee, a fellow Mormon.

Former Sen. John Edwards brought his wife, Elizabeth, to Las Vegas in March for national media interviews following their announcement that her cancer had returned.

No telling when we’ll see former first daughter Chelsea Clinton.

Last week’s activity comes on the heels of speeches Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Sen. Joe Biden made to Culinary union members in Las Vegas.

It also followed the Democratic Party’s official caucus apparatus events. Democrats swept through Northern Nevada last weekend for “mockuses.” These informal meetings are designed to inform voters about how a caucus works, and, more importantly, identify volunteers to staff the behemoth in January.

You’d almost think Republicans are still operating off the old calendar. Neither the state GOP nor its presidential candidates have done much yet to mobilize support here. Candidates have come to raise money or hold photo opportunities, but there’s been little outreach to voters or press.

Maybe that’s because there is money to raise and an organization to build. Maybe the GOP is just waiting for temperatures to cool and voters to tune in. Democrats can’t afford to take that risk, even if no one is really watching yet.

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906. Or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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