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September 22, 2014

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POLITICAL MEMO:

Nevada Democrats’ machine is well-oiled

McCain camp denies it’s ‘behind the eight ball’

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Sam Morris

DEMOCRAT Manita Rawat, a delegate from Las Vegas: “It was a very emotional experience. While I did support Obama from the very beginning, to watch Hillary do what she did was so gracious. She did it with so much dignity and class and just paved the way for women for the future.” REPUBLICAN Lorraine Marshall, a delegate from Las Vegas: “Sarah Palin last night? She delivered. Everyone was up in their chairs and dancing. It was tremendous. I’m having a blast. I don’t know so much if it’s important she’s a Republican woman rather than just being a woman.”

BY THE NUMBERS

61,700 -- Democrats’ edge in registrations over Republicans, statewide

98,400 -- Democrats’ edge in registrations over Republicans in Clark County

What it means: Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign has greatly increased the Democratic edge in newly registered voters in Nevada. But, as a spokesman for John McCain said, “Voter registration doesn’t mean votes,” and Republicans are traditionally more likely to vote.

Like two heavyweight boxers staring each other down at a weigh-in — but with one boasting a longer reach — the Democratic and Republican parties are primed for an eight-week fight to win Nevada in November.

By most accounts, the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, benefiting from the precinct-level organization it built for Nevada’s early caucus, has far outpaced that of Sen. John McCain in this battleground state. Volunteers registered thousands of voters in the wake of the Illinois senator’s acceptance speech in Denver, likely adding to the Democrats’ substantial registration edge.

McCain’s campaign, whose presence was been more felt on the air than on the ground here, was energized with the nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for vice president. Palin, a rock-ribbed social conservative, has motivated a new wave of volunteers into McCain headquarters, a spokesman said, and another registration push was planned this weekend.

For now, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 61,700 voters statewide. In Clark County, Democrats have nearly doubled their registration edge over Republicans since January, claiming 98,400 more voters. The county election department is now processing between 7,000 and 8,000 registrations a month, most of them submitted by Democrats and their allies, Registrar Larry Lomax said.

Over Labor Day weekend, Obama’s campaign deployed more than 1,000 volunteers in a statewide voter registration drive. The campaign had said it hoped to beat the previous weekend’s record of 1,500 registrations, and it did. Volunteers registered 4,200 Nevadans.

“I think people are charged up,” said Terence Tolbert, Obama’s state director. “Our numbers get better and better ... People are signing up and moving mountains.”

The campaign has 13 offices statewide and plans to open another seven by month’s end. It also employs 75 paid staff, overseen by six regional field directors.

Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are boasting about their organizational advantage and openly taunting Republicans. Reid, speaking to reporters last month, mused about the demise of the Nevada Republican Party and fired a shot directly at McCain’s campaign. “McCain is basically doing nothing,” he said. “Obama has this state really well organized, and frankly, John McCain has no grass-roots operations whatsoever.”

McCain spokesman Rick Gorka disagreed, saying the campaign runs an “aggressive” volunteer recruitment and voter registration effort seven days a week but declining to provide specifics. Palin’s nomination, he said, will bring new volunteers to the campaign.

“We are by no means behind the eight ball or behind the Democrats in any organizational efforts,” Gorka said. He added: “Voter registration doesn’t mean votes. We are incredibly confident in our ability to turn our voters out.”

Indeed, Republicans are traditionally more reliable voters. The campaign is also focusing on absentee voting, placing robo-calls to voters reminding them to request mail ballots.

Nevertheless, both parties place premiums on organization — and some longtime Republicans say the Democratic machine could make the difference in races up and down the ballot. After a banner year in 2002, when Republicans swept the constitutional offices, the GOP allowed its machine, built by veteran field operative Steve Wark, to atrophy. Because McCain did not campaign in Nevada during the primaries, his organization was slow to take root. That, combined with a weakened state party, could prove fatal, Wark said.

“His campaign, despite itself, resurrected itself less than a year ago, which is amazing,” he said. “But a field organization takes far longer to grow and oftentimes it has grown organically. From a time standpoint, the campaign would never have the time to get that kind of thing together.”

Another challenge for Republicans: The national Democratic Party has targeted two of the state’s three congressional districts with financial and strategic help.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved $916,000 in television advertising time in the 3rd Congressional District on behalf of state Sen. Dina Titus, who is challenging Rep. Jon Porter, a three-term incumbent. The committee is also promising help in the 2nd Congressional District to Jill Derby, running against Rep. Dean Heller.

The Democratic intensity, particularly in the 3rd Congressional District, could pose a considerable threat to Republicans such as state Sen. Joe Heck, whose district resides in the center of the storm.

Still, Republican operative and Heck campaign manager Robert Uithoven cautioned Democrats against getting too cocky. “There’s still an enormous amount of work to do, but this is when it gets exciting,” he said. “When all is said and done, this is a margin-of-error (presidential) race.”

Other candidates, such as Heck, will benefit from voters splitting their tickets, he said.

That was apparent Thursday, as union organizers visited members’ homes in an age-restricted neighborhood on behalf of Obama.

The results were not very heartening for Tracy Griffin and her husband, Rich, both letter carriers. Voters split between McCain and Obama, with the rest undecided or refusing to say whom they would support. It was clear Palin’s speech resonated in some union households.

“Did you watch last night?” said one man, his face hidden behind a locked screen door. “She was top dog. She was outstanding. If Hillary had talked like her, I would have voted for her.”

Thus, Obama’s campaign is leaving nothing to chance. It plans to host a steady stream of surrogates in Nevada to highlight the differences between the two tickets. Among the topics of discussion for a women’s round-table Saturday: equal pay, abortion rights and family leave.

Registration efforts will continue through Oct. 4, the last day organizers can submit forms to county election departments. “Leave no stone unturned,” Tolbert said. “There are still doors to be knocked on and people to persuade. Everyone needs to be given a reason.”

Sun reporter Alexandra Berzon contributed to this story.

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