The Silver State's Golden Opportunity

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Democratic debate in Las Vegas tonight will provide a rare moment in the spotlight for Nevada, a state that entered the election cycle expecting to enjoy a boost in stature but has struggled to draw attention from both presidential candidates and potential caucus-goers.

Democrats installed Nevada in the third slot on the primary calendar to try to add diversity to their list of early-voting states, but the caucus organization remains a work in progress. The state party is holding mock caucuses, or "mockuses," to educate participants, and it has boosted voter registration to record levels. But even the Democratic candidates are not sure what to expect on Jan. 19.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid lobbied the Democratic National Committee to award his home state an early date, he argued that it would be an ideal proving ground, testing the Democratic field's appeal to large populations of Hispanics and veterans and to more union households than other early states (the best-organized voters here, members of the Culinary Workers Union, work in the casinos along the Las Vegas Strip).

In 2004, when the Nevada caucuses took place in mid-February, 9,000 people participated. That marked a record-shattering turnout; fewer than 1,000 people attended caucuses four years earlier. But the volume overwhelmed the state's 17 meeting sites and resulted in long delays. Iowa, by comparison, operates about 2,000 caucus locations.

Although the state has logged fewer candidate visits than South Carolina, which holds its Democratic contest 10 days later, on Jan. 29, Democrats have carefully worked back channels to win key support. One of the state's most powerful Democrats, public-relations guru Billy Vassiliadis, is backing Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). And while Reid is neutral, his son Rory, the Clark County Commission chairman, serves as Nevada campaign chairman for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

Reid has projected that 100,000 Democrats will show up on caucus day, but Kirsten Searer, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Democratic Party, said the party is aiming for 40,000 to 50,000, representing 10 to 15 percent of eligible voters. Democratic registration has risen by 13,000 voters in the past year, surpassing the Republican total for the first time in decades.

The most frequent Democratic visitor is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has logged 44 events in the state. The stakes tonight are especially high for Richardson, who is counting on a strong showing in Nevada to keep his candidacy alive until the big Feb. 5 showdown.

Tonight's debate is expected to focus on such Western issues as renewable energy, water resources and immigration, but Nevada is more than just the West -- it's a gambling mecca and one of the rare locales in which whether to legalize prostitution is a serious policy question. As the University of Nevada at Las Vegas prepared for political theater, much of the buzz around town involved O.J. Simpson's preliminary hearing on armed-robbery and kidnapping charges.

"Nevadans know this is their time to make their voices heard," said Jon Summers, Reid's Nevada spokesman. "They clearly understand that the state will be a major force in determining who the Democratic nominee will be."

Despite booming growth that has turned Nevada into a Florida of the desert, its political culture remains strictly small-town, with a handful of power brokers, union bosses and niche national concerns -- such as whether to dump nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain -- dominating the conversation.

The local flavor could creep into tonight's debate. A group of undecided caucus-goers, dubbed "the Silver State's Secret 100" by local reporters, will be seated in front of the stage, primed to ask questions of the candidates.

Tonight's event could also sway the outcome of the state's most important political prize, the endorsement by the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, expected to be announced Dec. 2. Union officials have held at least 16 meetings with Democratic candidates, and the union boasted on its Web site that "The road to victory in the Nevada Caucus is going to go through us!"

Another target for the candidates is Nevada's large population of veterans, already the third-largest in the country and one of the fastest-growing. The state party's outreach efforts include preparing scores of care packages for Nevada residents serving in Iraq.

"Right now, it's about getting them involved," said Elliot Anderson, chairman of the party's veterans committee. "As we get closer, then we'll engage them in the caucus."

"Democrats have done really well in the West in recent years, and we believe that if a presidential candidate can win in Nevada, he or she can win the general election," Searer said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company