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March 31, 2015

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Jon Ralston tells Nevada to soak up the love while it can

They like us. They really like us. At least until Saturday.

Nothing says love better in a campaign than a flat-out, shameless genuflection for votes, a prostration before a targeted electorate on an issue politicians think the voters care about. And there it was on MSNBC on Tuesday evening, amid all the nationally targeted messages on issues such as race (let’s calm the waters) and the war (we all want the troops out): Yucca Mountain at center stage in a presidential debate, a microcosm of an unprecedented week in the history of Nevada politics.

Jon Ralston's analysis

During a week already characterized by schizophrenic national media lampooning Nevada (strippers can caucus!) on the one hand and marveling at the state’s ability to change the course of the Democratic nominating process on the other, came what Ben Smith of The Politico called, quite accurately, the “inevitable breathless Nevada pander.”

But they expended a lot of breath doing it, showing just how important they believe Saturday’s result could be as a pivot point leading to South Carolina and Tsunami Tuesday.

The Yucca Mountain exchange came after all three candidates gratuitously had thrown in Nevada references, with Hillary Clinton recounting her sojourn in a Hispanic neighborhood, Barack Obama mentioning how he wants to improve the lives of Nevadans and John Edwards talking about the Nevada dream sought by the thousands flocking here every month. They talked, as if it were second nature, of Las Vegas and Reno, and when a question was read by an e-mailer from Henderson, well, it doesn’t get better than that, as the mayor of a lesser city in Southern Nevada likes to say.

But the offhand mentions of cities were pander practice runs compared with what the trio came up with when Brian Williams asked the Democratic contenders to pledge to end the dump site. And they all (shockingly) did without a word about how they might undo what has been approved by the federal government and is about to go through the final hoop of licensing (and court battles, of course).

Clinton was the readiest and pointed out after Obama’s denunciation of the project and before Edwards had a chance to speak that of all the pure candidates on the stage, she was the purest. After saying she had been “consistently against Yucca Mountain,” she pointed to Obama’s support from dump backer Exelon and Edwards’ having once embraced the project.

Yucca Mountain as a wedge issue in a presidential debate? Make all the stripper jokes you want, folks. You cannot beat that.

Obama came up with a clever riposte to Clinton, without denying his manifest support from Exelon and while the debate was in progress, the Clinton campaign put out a news release detailing the company’s enthusiasm for the project. The Illinois senator rejoined, “Well, I think it’s a testimony to my commitment and opposition to Yucca Mountain that despite the fact that my state has more nuclear power plants than any other state in the country, I’ve never supported Yucca Mountain.”

He couldn’t talk about Exelon, so that was as good as he could do.

Edwards had to make a quick pivot, too, because he was an ardent Yucca backer until Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got his mind right late in his only Senate term. So Edwards smartly turned to nuclear power and his lone opposition to it.

Best he, too, could do in the situation, and before the discussion moved on, Clinton hit him again on voting for Yucca Mountain.

But more important, none of them said explicitly what he or she might do as president to stop the dump.

But as the eventual nominee uses the issue against the Republican (and likely Yucca-friendly) standard-bearer here during the fall campaign, we will see whether the dump issue really cuts here. Remember that George W. Bush was thoroughly disingenuous about the issue during his 2000 campaign and I and others pointed that out and contrasted his position with Al Gore’s and Bush still won the state.

For now, let’s look at the bright side. At least they were talking about it on a national stage and we have three more days to soak in their love, which, sincere or not, lasting or not, will make us feel as if they like us, they really like us.

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