‘The start of something big’

Two assemblymen from Clark County have become the darlings of the Democratic presidential candidates. Although Mo Denis and Ruben Kihuen are hardly household names, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, John Edwards and several others are placing calls to the two relatively new politicians at a rate typically reserved for veterans of higher offices.

Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, has gone from a stalwart behind-the-scenes election guy for Harry Reid, known only to rabid followers of Democratic politics, to being front and center for those hoping to win Nevada’s January presidential caucus.

Kihuen didn’t get an open-arms welcome when he opted to take on incumbent Democrat Bob McCleary in last year’s election. But with grass-roots, shoe-leather campaigning, he won the primary and the right to head to Carson City.

So there he was in February, warming up the crowd and introducing Obama for his first public event in Las Vegas. And there he was again introducing Bill Richardson at a block party at the New Mexico governor’s Las Vegas headquarters last month. And there he was inviting a handful of Hispanic leaders to a roundtable discussion with Sen. Chris Dodd last weekend.

And judging from the calls, he’ll be working on upcoming events, largely for Hispanic crowds, with Clinton, Sen. Joe Biden and Obama.

In Carson City, Kihuen is shepherding the Democrats’ latest lottery proposal. But he isn’t the kind of lawmaker the public notices. Gov. Jim Gibbons didn’t get Kihuen’s name right during his State of the State welcome to legislative freshmen. The Mexican-born UNLV graduate pronounces his name in a way that reflects how Democrats now view his election in Assembly District 11: Key-Win.

Serving on the Democrats’ early caucus commission has put him and his district — which includes the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Bonanza Road — on the map.

“Obama and Clinton have both talked about coming to my district,” Kihuen said. “I think we could get thousands over to Rancho High School to see someone that the average person in my district will only see on television.”

Part of the reason the Democratic Party chose Nevada for an early caucus is its emerging Hispanic population. Denis, a sophomore lawmaker of Cuban descent, has heard activists declare, election cycle after election cycle, that this year is the Year of the Hispanic Voter. “Every time we try,” said Denis, D-Las Vegas. “We try every cycle to register and get them out. This process of the caucus is going to give us the energy, and I think it’ll be the start of something big.”

Right now, Denis’ energy is sapped. The presidential campaigns are calling, asking for his attendance at events when he’s trying to get through the waning weeks of the 2007 Legislature. He’s also trying to keep an eye on his house — twice during this session, Denis returned from Carson City to find his home had been burglarized.

The only real solace after the second break-in was that he hadn’t yet replaced many of the stolen items. The one thing he did replace was a broken window. And the shiny glass, coupled with some alert neighbors who noticed the second crime in progress, led to the lifting of a fingerprint and an actual arrest.

So when the presidential posse asks Denis about the most important issues facing Hispanics, he doesn’t dwell on immigration reform. “It’s the same issues everyone is concerned about: crime, education, health care,” Denis said. “It’s important for us as (Hispanic) leaders to let them hear that.”

Denis doesn’t plan to endorse any of the candidates prior to the caucus. But if he and Kihuen can pack the gym at their alma mater, Rancho High School, you can bet the crowd will see it as a ringing endorsement.

Kihuen’s district is 65 percent Hispanic. During his campaign, he registered about 350 new voters and followed up to make sure they cast ballots.

One of the largest unknowns in January’s inaugural caucus is how many Hispanics will participate. The key in Southern Nevada will be not just educating and mobilizing those voters to caucus, but registering them in the first place.

“So often a candidate gets to the end and hasn’t spent the right resources at the right time,” Kihuen said. “My advice is that they should start early, reach out and then keep those voters active.”

That worked in his Assembly race. But could it be expanded to work in a presidential race?

Indeed, for lower-tier candidates such as Dodd and Richardson, the Hispanic vote gamble is worth taking in a state that will make or break their national hopes.

For now, Kihuen and Denis are happy to be along for the ride. And if this cycle does prove different for Hispanic voter turnout, you can bet their names will become a bit more familiar to Nevada households.

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

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