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

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

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.

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