Both parties rolling the dice in Nevada

Nevada could play a pivotal role not only in the race for the Republican presidential nomination but also in the general election.

Story highlights

  • Nevada could play a pivotal role in 2012 elections, strategists say
  • Both parties are holding conferences in Las Vegas this week
  • A CNN-Western Republican Leadership Conference debate will be held here Tuesday
  • Obama easily won the state in 2008
Republicans and Democrats are holding conferences in Las Vegas this week and seven of the leading GOP contenders are participating in a CNN debate here Tuesday -- evidence, activists in both parties say, that the state could play a pivotal role not only in the race for the Republican presidential nomination but also in the general election.
"Where Nevada goes so goes the presidency," Republican political consultant Robert Uithoven said noting the state's history of correctly choosing the eventual winner of the White House in general elections.
While President Barack Obama easily won Nevada in 2008 and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was re-elected last year, Republican Brian Sandoval won the governorship in 2010. In presidential politics, it has become a swing state -- one both parties believe could be critical to capturing the White House.
Key issues confronting the nation -- unemployment, foreclosures and illegal immigration -- are playing out front and center here and can offer opportunities as well as pitfalls for each party.
The state reported the highest unemployment in the nation in August at 13.4% and its home foreclosure rankings also were the highest in the country.
Republicans will attack the Obama White House as not helping to cure the state's economic downturn.
"Our economy is worst than anywhere in the nation," consultant Uithoven, who is unaffiliated in the nomination fight, said. "Hope and change ... has not made it here."
Democrats will counter, saying the president will offer better solutions than whoever ends up being the GOP nominee and will put a lot of effort to win here.
"What we showed in 2010, elections are about choices," one senior Nevada Democratic strategist told CNN.
With Hispanics making up 27% of the state's population and a key Democratic constituency, the illegal immigration issue is expected to be a major topic for the general election. While Hispanic activists are not happy with the White House's progress on comprehensive immigration reform, the Obama re-election campaign can be expected to tout what the president has tried to accomplish.
If the Republican nominee is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, then Democrats will attack his push for strict border enforcement.
Romney, for his part, can be expected to focus on how his jobs proposals will help bolster the state and shape immigration as an economic issue while his team hopes the strong sentiments about the issue elsewhere are softer here farther away from the border.
While his immigration stance might cause Romney complications in Nevada if he wins the nomination, Uithoven said it is helping him build support among conservatives in the state right now.
If the nominee is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the issue becomes more muddied. As governor, Perry has criticized the effectiveness of the border fence and signed legislation allowing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
One reason analysts cite why Reid was able to win his tough re-election fight last year was some of the tough rhetoric offered by Republican challenger Sharron Angle on immigration.
Since 2004, spurred by Reid, Democrats have succeeded in improving their get-out-the vote apparatus and enlarging their voter list with a particular focus on Latinos. About 65,000 more Democrats are currently registered in the state than Republicans.
"In Nevada, people kept saying to me, 'Why have you spent years and years working with the Hispanic community? What a waste of your time.' Number one, they don't register and they don't vote," Reid told the Project New West Summit in Las Vegas on Sunday.
Project New West is a political conference bringing together Democrats from across the West.
"In 2010, their productivity at the ballot box showed they are a significant power in the state of Nevada. ... I would not be the majority leader of the United States today but for the Hispanics in Nevada," Reid said.
The Obama re-election campaign is already up and going in Nevada, reaching out to voters and laying the groundwork for the general election, the Democratic strategist told CNN, as it tries to counter a drop in the president's approval ratings.
Speaking of the importance of Nevada, the strategist said, "It's a key part of the overall electoral strategy."
Obama will visit Las Vegas on October 24 to help sell his jobs bill, an administration official told CNN.
Nevadans will hear plenty of anti-Obama rhetoric in the next few months as Republicans make their pitches to voters in advance of the state's GOP caucus scheduled for January 14. The Nevada caucus will be key because it will be early in the election calendar and the first contest in western states. Republicans here hope to use it to signify the importance of the state.
While some candidates vow to boycott the state because of a tussle between Nevada and New Hampshire over scheduling its primary, Romney, Perry and Texas Rep. Ron Paul say they will still campaign here and have organizations on the ground trying to recruit activists and broaden their support.
Romney, who won the caucus here four years ago, is working with a major organizational advantage in the state because his team of supporters has remained intact, state Republican activists say. He has also visited the state several times this year, including unveiling his jobs plan and hosting his national finance call-a-thon here.
"He is clearly at home here," said Ryan Erwin, a Nevada consultant working for Romney.
Romney, who has won the backing of Rep. Joe Heck and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, is opening his campaign headquarters Monday and will host a major fundraiser.
While Perry is playing catch-up, he has won the key endorsement of Gov. Sandoval, whose political team is now working for the Texan's campaign.
"Governor Rick Perry has the strongest record of job creation, fiscal discipline and executive branch leadership among the presidential candidates," Sandoval said in announcing his backing in September.
Perry and Cain will be speaking to the Western Republican Leadership Conference, a gathering of Republican activists and politicians from across the region, which is being held in conjunction with the debate.