Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Richardson Is Counting on Nevada, a State He Has to Himself"

LAS VEGAS -- Gov. Bill Richardson has found a second home in Nevada.

The two-hour flight is not a short hop from the New Mexico governor's mansion in Santa Fe, but Richardson hopes Nevada will become a critical aspect of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"You're now important," he told a group of Las Vegas Democrats last week. "You used to not be that important."

The decision by Nevada Democrats to move their caucuses to Jan. 19, 2008, making them second after Iowa's on the party's nominating calendar, was supposed to make the state -- better known for gamblers and showgirls -- a prime destination for presidential candidates. But so far, the gregarious New Mexico governor has been the only one to make it a priority.

Richardson has had about as many events in the state as the three front-runners for the Democratic nomination have combined. The gap was illustrated starkly on Wednesday. Richardson held four events in the state, and his only competition was the wife of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Michelle, who campaigned in Las Vegas. Before Richardson spoke at a meeting of the Stonewall Democrats, a group of gay activists, a DVD was played in which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) offered a personalized message about what she would do to defend gay rights. Richardson has one major reason to like campaigning in Nevada: He often has it all to himself.

There are many reasons the Silver State has been almost an afterthought in the presidential primary process, including an unsettled primary calendar, the traditional roles of Iowa and New Hampshire as the early-voting states, and the distance of Nevada from Washington.

When Democrats, pushed by Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, moved Nevada up on the calendar last August, officials in New Hampshire fumed about losing their status as the second state in the country to vote. So far, those officials, who had scheduled their primary for Jan. 22, have seen little to confirm their fears about losing influence to Nevada. A long list of states, including California, will hold primaries on Feb. 5, so campaigns are investing more energy than expected to prepare for a day that will be virtually a national primary.

In picking Nevada, Dean and Reid wanted to ensure that the Democratic nomination process was more diverse. A Western state that is 23 percent Latino and has high union membership seemed perfect. But one thing has been missing from the Nevada contest in the first few months of the race: candidates.

Other than holding events before or after forums that the candidates are expected to attend, Obama has made one trip to Nevada, compared with the dozens of events he has had in New Hampshire. Clinton has made one more stop than Obama, but one of her visits last month was of the kind that has defined the candidate's less-than-diligent efforts in the state. Clinton landed and held events in Las Vegas on May 30 but left before evening for what might have been her real destination: the campaign ATM that is California.

"This is probably the most attention Nevada has ever gotten in the primary cycle," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist, but "they haven't made it 100 percent to the major leagues."

Aides to Clinton and Obama say it is mainly a matter of distance. Getting to Nevada simply takes a much longer flight than the other early-voting states, and it is tough to schedule a trip there when the Senate is in session.

"I don't think at the end of the day people will write off Nevada," said Bill Buck, who worked in the presidential campaigns of Vice President Al Gore and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, and is one of several consultants the Nevada Democratic Party has hired to help run the caucuses.

"It's a little bit of a wait-and-see game to see how it turns out, but we're taking it seriously," said Steve Hildebrand, who oversees Obama's strategy in the early states. "It's very new, and all the candidates are trying to get a handle on how they campaign here."

To be sure, the candidates are investing far more in Nevada, compared with most other states and with spending in Nevada in 2004, when the state was virtually ignored in the nomination process. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), Obama, Clinton and Richardson have installed state directors and field organizers. Nevada Democrats argue that all of this early work will help their party win a state in November 2008 that Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) lost narrowly in 2004.

The Nevada GOP seems worried about that possibility and moved its caucus up to Jan. 19, although the move happened so quietly that even some campaigns of the leading Republicans did not know until recently and have done little in the state.

Edwards, Clinton and Richardson have sought the endorsement of Oscar Goodman, the Las Vegas mayor best known for his work in the '70s as a lawyer, when he defended clients accused of being mobsters, and more recently for the martini-making class he teaches. His advice for the candidates: Pronunciation is key. The A's in "Nevada" are like the A in "cat," and the area where the state's residents don't want nuclear waste dumped is Yucca Mountain, said like "yuck" rather than "uke." Lamenting that Kerry mispronounced both in his 2004 campaign stops, Goodman said, "By the time I got him straightened out, the election was over."

Goodman is only one part of the unusual political situation that is Nevada. The state has long held caucuses, a process by which voters, rather than casting ballots as in a primary, meet and discuss the various candidates and then divide themselves into groups based on whom they support.

But Nevada, which has historically had low voter turnout in Democratic caucuses, had just one caucus in each county in 2004. Now, with much higher turnout expected, the Nevada Democratic Party will increase its number of caucus groups from 17 to 1,700.

There are obstacles to winning the state through Latino support. Not only are many Latinos in Nevada not registered to vote, but also there is no Spanish equivalent for "caucus." Party officials met with Spanish-language media in the state to figure out terms they would use to explain the voting process.

Nevada's cities are scattered, with the two biggest, Reno and Las Vegas, about eight hours apart by car. The rural communities in between are also far apart.

In Las Vegas, many people work at the casinos at night, meaning an early-morning visit from a campaign might wake them up. Richardson's campaign says there are enough casino workers that it will try to hold some events there, but Edwards aides said it would not be not worth the hassle of wading through tourists -- most of whom cannot vote in the caucuses.

"The casinos themselves are just too messy to campaign in," said Bill Hyers, Edwards's Nevada director. "To go into a casino and hand out leaflets would be a nightmare."

The candidates seem to agree on one thing: The most important person in Nevada right now is D. Taylor, the head of the state's Culinary Workers Union, which has 60,000 members. Every candidate who stops in the state for even a day seeks to meet with him.

The math in this is simple: The state has about 400,000 registered Democrats, and with caucus participation expected to be 10 to 20 percent, the backing of even half of the union members could win Nevada.

"They don't want to just see the candidates come in and kiss babies," said Pilar Weiss, the union's political director. She noted that the union's membership is 45 percent Latino, and many of those voters are closely watching the presidential hopefuls' positions on immigration.

Polls in Nevada, like those nationally, show Clinton with a double-digit lead, and she has already picked up major endorsements, including one from Reid's son, Rory, a Clark County commissioner. As in other states, her campaign has focused on making her seem like the inevitable nominee, releasing long lists of endorsements from Hispanic and black activists in the state.

Richardson says he understands Nevada -- from the problems of a dry climate to the large Latino population -- better than other candidates because of his time as New Mexico's governor. "This is a state where I must do well," Richardson said in an interview. "I've got to show some strength here."

But even Richardson says he knows where presidents are made, and at least for now, that's not anywhere near the Strip. The governor loves to catch the fights of boxer Oscar De La Hoya, but he missed the May bout at the MGM Grand because he was in New Hampshire campaigning.

"South Carolina and Nevada are players," he said. "Iowa and New Hampshire are in a class by themselves."

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