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Earlier caucus date is failing to gain traction in Nevada

Lack of attention, voters' disinterest frustrates activists

Senator Hillary Clinton made a campaign visit to Las Vegas in August. Clinton, who leads most polls in Nevada, and the major presidential contenders have made few stops in the state. Senator Hillary Clinton made a campaign visit to Las Vegas in August. Clinton, who leads most polls in Nevada, and the major presidential contenders have made few stops in the state. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

LAS VEGAS - Party officials elevated Nevada to be an early voting state to highlight Western and Latino issues and diversify the presidential nomination process.

But the Jan. 19 caucuses are barely getting attention by the candidates, who are focusing their staff and cash on states with more delegates and longer traditions in the presidential campaign, most notably New Hampshire and Iowa.

Major Democratic and Republican contenders have made few stops in Nevada, and visits are brief, often limited to fund-raising events or meetings with powerful union representatives. No candidate is advertising on television, there are few house parties, and hardly any campaign signs dot neighborhoods.

Nevada is experiencing a comparative drought, while New Hampshire and Iowa are inundated with candidates, pollsters, and canvassers, and another state allowed to move up its contest, South Carolina, is on the schedule of candidates. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a leading contender for the GOP nomination, doesn't even have a campaign office in Nevada.

The dearth of attention is frustrating to Nevada activists. "When you look at the West, it's been largely ignored," said Zachary Moyle, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party.

Officials in both parties say Nevada needs a presidential cycle or two to get into gear. And with the interior West emerging as a critical battleground for the general election, Nevada will automatically command far more attention from candidates next year, they said. But so far, the parties are struggling to get Nevadans involved.

Voters in the Silver State say they are uninterested in the campaign, and confused by the process of caucusing to select a presidential nominee. And campaigns are finding it tough to navigate a state whose population grows and changes with the addition of 6,000 new residents every month.

"The what?" said Phillip Inos, 34, a Las Vegas Republican, when asked his views on the caucuses. He said he isn't planning to participate.

"January 2d. That's when we're going to start caring," said Kenneth E. Fernandez, a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "We're going to wake up from our hangovers and say, 'Oh, yeah - we've got to elect a president.' "

Campaign and party workers note that Nevada is a challenging place to troll for votes. There are no restaurants like the Merrimack in Manchester, N.H., and the Drake Diner in Des Moines, where candidates troop through every four years to campaign.

Nor does Nevada have a network of politically active families who organize house parties and meet-and-greet sessions with candidates.

Turnout at previous caucuses has been abysmal; less than 1 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2004 caucus. Las Vegas voters say they are too busy in a city that works all night to pay much attention, and reaching voters in Nevada's rural counties - some of which have just a few thousand residents - is cumbersome for candidates.

Democratic presidential hopefuls have made a total of 168 visits to Iowa and 122 to New Hampshire, but just 50 to Nevada, according to a count by The Hotline, a political website. Rarely do candidates spend the night here. They have held a few rallies - including at high schools, since state law allows 17-year-olds to participate in the caucuses as long as they will turn 18 by Election Day in November 2008. But most of the Democrats' efforts have focused on the state's powerful labor unions, including the Culinary Workers Union, which represents employees at Nevada casinos.

Not only is Nevada one of the most unionized states in the nation, but the unions are among the most active groups involved in politics.

"That's one thing about the unions - we're organized. We get the vote out to our members, and they act," said Bill Hite, president of the United Association, a plumbers and pipefitters union representing 300,000 people nationally and 5,000 in Nevada.

The Republican candidates are spending even less time here, logging fewer than a dozen visits combined since the campaign began. Since the booming area around Las Vegas is heavily Democratic, GOP contenders can't easily reach Republican voters by dropping in and out of Nevada's biggest city.

Giuliani - who was leading in the most recent poll - is gaining support through his surrogates in the state, said spokesman Jarrod Agen. "Obviously, as we move forward and get a little closer, the mayor will spend more time there," said Agen, who monitors Nevada from Iowa.

The caucuses themselves are complicated affairs, requiring voters to show up on a Saturday afternoon during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Desperate to get voters out, the political parties and unions have been holding training seminars and mock caucuses.

Nevada for Health Care, a nonpartisan group affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, is sending a purple RV around the state starting in November to promote the caucuses and explain how they work, said Samantha Galing, the group's campaign director.

"There is an apprehension - people don't know what to do," she said.

Candidates and officials in both parties say the race is wide open in Nevada, especially given the critical importance of turnout. While many Republicans have assumed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has a huge edge because of the state's sizable Mormon population, several recent straw polls show different candidates in the lead, Moyle said.

And while Clinton leads in most polls on the Democratic side, other contenders believe they can score an upset if they win over union members and pick up some extra support in the northern part of the state.

"The dynamic is still there, I believe, for Nevada to play an important role," Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico said in an interview, after delivering an address to the plumbers and pipefitters union. "I'm counting on it, because I have to win here."

Susan Milligan can be reached at milligan@globe.com.

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