After failing to gain respect from the political class in 2008 for its second-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, Nevada Republicans are going all in as only the world's glitziest gambling mecca can do. In October, they're bringing together party chieftains from all the Western states for a huge political conference that will include a GOP presidential debate that's attracting top tier-candidates like Mitt Romney. They've also made the Nevada caucuses—scheduled for February 18—more fair, and are pursuing their new Hispanic governor, Brian Sandoval, as the pick of the vice presidential litter.
"Nevada is going to show that it is an important political player," says former Rep. Jon Porter, chairman of the October 18-21 Western Republican Leadership Conference. He adds: "Western states are too important to ignore. It's about time presidential candidates put these states into focus, early in the election."
In 2008, when Nevada was one of the four early presidential caucus and primary states, alongside Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, it was snubbed by Republicans. For one reason, it was a winner-take-all event. Also, Mormon fave Romney was the assumed winner since it's a Mormon state, meaning few competed there. Now there are two Mormons in the race—Romney and Jon Huntsman—and caucus delegates will be divvied up proportionally to the candidates. And the state has become more representative of the West: more Hispanic, more independent, and, unfortunately, suffering more from the housing and job crisis. Plus, it's home to a huge faction of the Tea Party. "We are an example of what's going on in the country," says Porter. "That makes us an incubator for Western, Goldwater, Reagan, ideas." [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]
Nevada Republicans sense a jackpot. CNN has agreed to host the October 18 debate in Las Vegas. "Nevada is the gateway to the West in the 2012 Republican presidential primary," says CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist.
Bringing 16 Western states together at the conference for seminars and speeches could have an impact on the 2012 presidential race, says Porter. "We could be quite a block in the election. That's not been done before."
And that would be easier if the eventual GOP nominee picked Sandoval, a former judge, elected last year as the Silver State's first Hispanic governor. "The next vice president isn't going to be white," says one Nevada GOP organizer. "They'll be female or brown, and he's a great choice."