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December 20, 2014

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Winning West not a given for Arizona’s senator

Presumptive GOP nominee breezes in and out of his stop in Vegas

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Steve Marcus

The only reference to the Las Vegas economy Sen. John McCain made during a stop at the Venetian on Friday was to encourage the press corps to support it.

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  • McCain explains why he supports Yucca Mountain.

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  • McCain on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to send troops to Basra.

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  • Sen. John McCain talks about party unity and Mitt Romney campaigning with him.

Sen. John McCain came to town Friday, a reminder to Democrats that their plan to take the White House via the intermountain West may now be in doubt.

Nevada and other states in the region, including Colorado and New Mexico, are seen as seen as crucial battlegrounds whether the Democratic nominee is Illinois Sen. Barack Obama or New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Republicans have saved themselves by nominating a westerner, said Tom Schaller, a political scientist who recently wrote a book arguing Democrats should cede the south and pursue a western strategy to match their strength on the coasts and the upper Midwest. “Of the Republicans, he was their best bet,” Schaller said.

McCain, who has represented Arizona in Congress and the Senate since the 1980s, will win his home state and likely take the solidly Republican states of Utah, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Holding the whole region, as McCain adviser Charlie Black recently predicted, is an exaggeration, Schaller said. Still, the affable former Navy fighter pilot, who was a POW and has broad crossover appeal with independents and Democrats, will be formidable in the West. This is especially so as Obama and Clinton continue to bang away on each other, unable to turn their full attention to McCain.

But McCain’s quick Friday visit to Las Vegas also showed his vulnerabilities. He finished third in the Republican contests here in January.

McCain is badly underfunded compared with his Democratic rivals, who have raised $360 million to McCain’s $66 million, though he tried to rectify that with a fundraiser Friday at national Republicans’ favorite Las Vegas stopover, the Venetian, whose owner Sheldon Adelson is one of the most generous conservative donors in the country.

McCain is also facing a difficult issue environment. In a recent speech on the mortgage crisis, he warned of government doing too much and said his administration would take a laissez-faire approach, not the best message for the many voters feeling economically insecure.

During a brief news conference after the fundraiser, McCain encouraged the national press corps traveling with him to contribute to the struggling local economy. (The Sun heard a recording of his comments; the news conference ended before its scheduled beginning, not atypical for the unpredictable McCain.)

McCain’s typically good-humored barb was his only comment on the local economy. Obama and Clinton, by contrast, have made a point to talk about the local economy when in Nevada, and each has detailed, robust plans to deal with the mortgage mess.

McCain’s strength is national security and his staunch and faithful support for America’s effort in Iraq. That position isn’t exactly convenient at the moment, however, as rival Shiite groups do battle in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra. There are reports of Iraqi government forces joining the rival faction. Saboteurs badly damaged the country’s second largest oil pipeline.

McCain said the Iraqi government’s attempt to stamp out its Shiite rival and its radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, is a “sign of strength” of the Maliki government. He said he respects the decision and hopes the Iraqi government is successful.

The new fighting, coming after months of reduced violence credited in part to America’s increased military presence, seemed to illustrate the lack of political progress in Iraq and the complexity of the ethnic and sectarian conflict. By grounding his candidacy on such a fragile situation, McCain could face these difficult moments from now until November.

Finally, McCain is not with Nevadans on some local issues. He said he followed the advice of respected college basketball coaches when he offered legislation banning college sports betting. As he noted, the legislation isn’t going anywhere, but his proposal may still bother some Nevadans given the effect it would have on the local economy.

McCain has also long favored Yucca Mountain, though he’s recently said he would abide by what scientists say is safe and effective. The time for delaying a solution, however, is finished, he said.

These local vulnerabilities might leave McCain on the margins, as voters tend to vote on national issues and perceptions of character in presidential races.

Given these vulnerabilities, though, Schaller said the eventual Democratic nominee needs to take on McCain in the West, which could ease the pressure for a Democratic victory in Ohio in the race for 270 electoral votes.

Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, which is the site of the Democratic National Convention in August, are worth 19 electoral votes, or just one shy of Ohio, and enough for victory.

J. Patrick Coolican can be reached at 259-8814 or at [email protected]

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