Wednesday, May 21, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s victory Tuesday in Oregon pushed him ever closer to winning the Democratic nomination, and now strategists and political observers are looking again at Nevada.
The reason: Come November and the final race to the White House, Nevada will be pretty much a must-win state.
As America was reminded in the 2000 presidential race, the presidency is not decided by who wins the popular vote, but by who collects the most electoral votes, awarded state by state.
The magic number to get elected is 270 electoral votes, and Nevada will contribute five of them. But those five could make or break the race.
Obama will face Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster unaffiliated with a campaign, laid out the potential state-by-state scenarios both in a Sun interview and in an article he wrote for Salon.com.
His conclusion: Absent an Obama upset in a state such as Virginia or North Carolina, and assuming McCain wins Ohio, Obama must win Nevada, New Hampshire and New Mexico, or Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.
In each successive recent election, the number of tightly competitive states that could tip the election has gotten smaller. And now voters in just a few states will essentially make the call on the next president.
Nevada is one of them, by virtue of Democrats’ having gained a 50,000-voter advantage over Republicans since the state voted in 2000 and 2004 for President George W. Bush.
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Democrats should “stop obsessing about Ohio and figure out how to win Nevada. Look to states where Democrats have been building their party, like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico.”
For Nevadans, this means a coming deluge of TV ads, candidate surrogates, and the candidates themselves, as well as interviews with voters who will claim to be undecided despite four or five months of presidential mania.
Each candidate has strengths and weaknesses here.
McCain has supported the proposed nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain and a ban on college sports betting. Obama is an urbanite who in the past has favored some forms of gun control, which is anathema to Nevada’s libertarian streak.
Crystal Benton, a spokeswoman for McCain, said the Arizona senator will connect with Nevada voters as a Westerner who understands water, land use and American Indian issues. (Actually, Nevada doesn’t have a significant Indian population.)
Benton said Obama is out of touch with Nevada, citing his past support for gun control as an example.
Shannon Gilson, a spokeswoman for Obama, pointed to the January caucus and said, “The issues that were of concern to Nevadans (during the caucus) were the issues of concern to all Americans: Strengthen the economy, provide all Americans affordable health care and bring the Iraq war to an end.”
Obama has a massive grass-roots organization with thousands of devoted volunteers, including the Culinary Union, well-trained in politics. The campaign knows the state well. Still, that was not enough to deliver victory in January. Maslin said he expects the campaign to leverage the state’s young population and bring it to the polls in hordes.
Duffy noted a key concern for Obama: He was beaten 2-1 in the caucus among Hispanic voters. Can he win over those voters against a candidate long thought a friend of Hispanics? (McCain is also the standard-bearer of a party now viewed by Hispanics as anti-immigrant because of some harsh rhetoric by party leaders.)
McCain, meanwhile, for all his natural advantages in Nevada, came in third in the Republican caucus here in January and has little organization.
Maslin summed up the state this way on Salon: “Obama has a wellspring of younger, unaffiliated voters to draw upon, but McCain does enjoy a closer proximity and a shared desert identity. This one should go down to the wire.”