Can Nevada matter in the 2012 Republican primary?

There’s a GOP presidential debate in Las Vegas tonight. It comes as almost every Republican candidate is snubbing the Nevada caucuses as a way to boost his or her chances in the all-important New Hampshire primary.


The Las Vegas Strip glows at dusk within view of new homes built on the edge of town. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

Rep. Michele Bachmann , former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain , former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and former Pennslyvania senator Rick Santorum are all threatening to boycott Nevada’s caucuses should the state refuse to reschedule for a date that satisfies the Granite State. Huntsman is skipping tonight’s debate altogether.

That tactic seems to be working. Romney is taking heat from New Hampshire Republicans — and local papers — for not joining the boycott.

But Perry hasn’t joined the Nevada boycott. Neither has Texas Rep. Ron Paul. While it’s dangerous for Romney to anger New Hampshire voters, he can’t afford to ignore Nevada either.

In 2008, Romney won the Nevada caucuses in a landslide, a victory that didn’t do him much good as all the other candidates focused on South Carolina. On the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton managed to win the caucuses but get fewer delegates than Barack Obama, thanks to the state party’s arcane system.

This year, the state’s GOP caucuses are binding and no longer winner-take-all. Even if Romney wins, it would be worth it for Perry to cut into Romney’s margin of victory.

While the Texas governor is struggling nationally right now, he’s the only candidate with the money and the organization to compete with Romney nationwide. And he already has a leg up in Nevada thanks to the endorsement of the state’s governor, Brian Sandoval.

Paul’s focus on Nevada could also complicate the race. He came in second there in 2008. His supporters have spent the past four years making connections in local goverment — in fact, they had a hand in changing the Nevada caucus rules. Like Romney, Paul announced his economic plan in the Silver State.

“Given Nevada’s independent nature and libertarian streak, I think Ron Paul will do well in Nevada,” said Pete Ernaut, a Republican consultant supporting Perry, adding that “you would have to figure he would pull votes from Perry more than Romney.”

Nevada could also be a general election battleground, with a high-profile Senate race. Unemployment is at 13.4 percent, which ranks the highest in the country.

Romney’s 2008 victory in Nevada is often chalked up to a high Mormon population. Yes, 25 percent of voters in the caucuses were Mormon and those voters went almost entirely to Romney.

Some Nevada observers still see the state as Romney territory. “The only way we really matter is if Romney were to lose,” said long-time GOP strategist Sig Rogich, saying that that’s “highly unlikely” given “heavy expected Mormon turnout.”

But only 7.5 percent of Nevada residents share Romney’s religion, according to the Mormon church’s own statistics. Romney won Nevada in 2008 largely because he was the only candidate to try.

This time around, he might have more competition.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.

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