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Four big questions await answers Tuesday in Nevada's Republican caucuses

The race for the Republican presidential nomination enters Nevada on Tuesday, where front-runner Donald Trump looks to rack up a third straight win after sailing to victory in South Carolina's primary over the weekend.

Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, who's still seeking his first win in a nominating contest, are aiming to produce a strong showing in the Republican caucuses here to blunt Trump's trajectory toward the nomination.

Here is what to watch for Tuesday:

Can Marco Rubio find a win?

The freshman senator has been labeled a potentially transformational figure; he is charismatic, projects optimism and, as a 44-year-old Cuban American, offers the party a younger voice that reflects the increasingly diverse electorate. But for all Rubio's promise, he has yet to win. He finished third in Iowa, a distant fifth in New Hampshire and second in South Carolina.

Saturday's exit of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush from the Republican primary provided an opening for Rubio in that many of Bush's donors and establishment supporters have moved into his corner. A win in Nevada could bolster his claim that he's the most fit to take on Democrats this fall.

Moreover, Rubio has roots in Las Vegas, where he lived briefly as a child when his family converted to Mormonism. But his ties to Nevada are somewhat weak; he has since left the Mormon Church in favor of a combination of Catholicism and his wife's evangelical Christianity, and he has publicly criticized the gambling industry.

Will Donald Trump's failure to match his rivals' strong get-out-the-vote operations damage him in Nevada the way it did in Iowa?

Trump has the support of blue-collar white voters who didn't go to college and are extremely discontent with politicians and Washington. His popularity can be seen in the massive attendance at his rallies; Trump campaign events in recent months along the Strip have attracted thousands. But whether that will turn into votes remains to be seen.

Organizing is crucial to success in caucuses; the voting is more complicated than in a primary and demands a firmer commitment. Participants must show up at a scheduled time instead of dropping by a polling station when it fits their schedule.

Cruz and Rubio have some of the best political operatives in the state running their campaigns, while Trump has a sparse staff. Cruz's superior ground effort in Iowa helped him defeat Trump.

Whom will Mormons coalesce around?

In 2012, Mormons accounted for nearly 25% of Republican caucusgoers and mostly backed fellow Mormon Mitt Romney. Mormons are not a monolithic voting group — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not endorse in political races — but Rubio and Cruz have gathered prominent endorsements from members of the church.

Bruce Woodbury, a Mormon and former Clark County commissioner who is so admired in southern Nevada that the Interstate 215 beltway around Las Vegas is named after him, is backing Rubio. Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, also a Mormon, had backed Bush but threw his support to Rubio.

Cruz's aides have said Rubio's support comes from more moderate Republicans while their candidate's backing stems from conservatives such as state Assemblyman Ira Hansen, a Republican who represents Sparks, just east of Reno. Hansen helped lead the fight against a $1-billion tax increase pushed by the state's Republican governor and supported by some of Rubio's allies.

Will the caucus process be seamless and with votes counted in a timely manner?

The results that confirmed Romney's 2012 victory here did not come until two days after the meetings, and the state party never kept a complete list of caucusgoers that year. To say the state party is in disarray would be an understatement, say some Republican operatives in the Cruz and Rubio campaigns here.

Unlike Democrats, who all caucused at the same time Saturday, Republicans will have varying times to cast ballots Tuesday night. Nevada began conducting caucuses in 2008, so the process is relatively new to many residents.


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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 23, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Four major questions await answers Tuesday in Nevada - GOP candidates and state party have a lot to prove in the caucuses - Back Story" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe