Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011 | 2 a.m.
With the Ames straw poll — the first major barometer of the presidential primary field — now complete, perhaps Nevada will begin feeling the candidates’ love as they begin fine-tuning their early-state strategies.
Or perhaps not.
As one Nevada operative put it, the Silver State has emerged as an “ugly stepchild” of sorts in the presidential primary so far, with the traditional early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina hogging all spotlight. Nevada is scheduled to hold the third primary contest next year after Iowa and New Hampshire.
Compared with Democrats’ caucuses four years ago, Republicans are far behind in fundraising, voter outreach, campaign visits, staffing and party organization — a signal that the GOP caucuses could be a bust.
Working against Nevada Republicans is the absence of a Harry Reid-like figure drawing national attention and donations to the state, a major factor in Democrats’ success four years ago. They also don’t have a built-in organizing force such as labor unions, which also drove caucus attendance for Democrats four years ago.
And although the party is looking to contract with a firm that has experience organizing the Iowa caucuses, it has yet to hire a caucus director or raise enough money to hire such a firm.
“No one wants to go through another 2008 — where we have no idea what we’re doing and hoping the guy we brought in does, but turns out not to really have the bravado to pull it off,” said one Republican operative who worked the caucuses four years ago.
But some argue Republicans don’t need to follow the Democrats’ playbook of embarking on a lengthy education effort to raise awareness of the caucuses and relying on a built-in organizing force.
They argue that the dynamics of the campaign itself could trump any difficulties the state party is having, by generating the attention Nevada needs to be taken seriously as an early state contender.
“I don’t think it’s that complicated,” GOP operative Mike Slanker said. “What really drove the numbers (in 2008) was (Barack) Obama and (Hillary) Clinton spending all that money to turn people out.”
In fact, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entry in the race over the weekend could be the best thing that happened to the Nevada caucuses.
Perry is expected to challenge former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for front-runner status. It’s a designation the two men will likely share with U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who won Saturday’s straw poll in Iowa.
And Nevada could be the place where the two duke it out.
“I expect Perry to make a full-on play for Nevada,” said GOP operative Zac Moyle, who isn’t yet affiliated with a campaign. “That will force them at all levels to make a play for Nevada and it will force Romney to spend money he didn’t think he would have to spend.”
Largely because of his efforts four years ago, Romney remains popular, or at least well-known, with Republicans in Nevada. He has hired a state director and has visited several times.
Perry also has ties to the political establishment in Nevada. And he is expected to be a well-funded candidate with the resources to compete against Romney.
Bachmann hasn’t campaigned much in Nevada, but she is making a concerted fundraising effort here.
“If you see a Christian conservative win Iowa and Romney makes a big play to win New Hampshire and a Southern governor leads South Carolina, you could have Nevada building the momentum for Florida,” said Rob Collins, a Virginia-based GOP consultant who had been tapped to run Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s presidential campaign. “And whoever wins Florida will be really tough to beat.”
Beyond momentum, a Nevada win — coupled with a strong showing in another early state — would prove the candidate has broad appeal.
“It’s important to have a Western state in the process,” Collins said. “You can show you appeal not just to some cell of Christian conservatives in Iowa or libertarians in New Hampshire. It balances out the campaign.”
Collins said Barbour planned to take Nevada seriously for exactly that reason, noting that even a second-place finish would net important delegates under new rules awarding delegates based on the percentage of the caucus vote.
Also waiting in the wings to repeat his strong Nevada showing is U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. So far, he’s the only candidate to air campaign ads — buying time at the height of the debt crisis debate — and the only candidate with an office open in Nevada. Paul also has a number of Nevada campaign stops on the calendar.
That candidates have opened far fewer offices and hired fewer staff members than Democratic candidates had at this point four years ago isn’t necessarily a Nevada-specific phenomenon, Collins said.
With fundraising lagging in the down economy, most candidates are wary to repeat the mistake former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made four years ago, when he burned through his campaign cash too quickly to be a major player in the big primary states late in the cycle.
“It’s a decision all the campaigns kind of made, to have a small staff based in campaign headquarters and then have a really limited state presence,” Collins said. “The teams are a lot smaller than in 2008.”
That said, as the primary campaign coalesces, Collins expects a late flurry of attention in Nevada before the caucuses.
“I can see a lot of money spent there, fast and furious right near the election,” he said. “That’s the way all these races seem to be shaping up.”