With the Nevada caucuses just over two months away, Mom’s Diner would seem to be the perfect spot for a presidential candidate to stop and mingle for the TV cameras.
There are four booths, seven tables, country music on the radio and a welcome mat hanging on a bright yellow wall that reads, “Well butter my butt, call me a biscuit -- look who’s here.”
Unfortunately for diner owner Tracie Oien, no one who is running for president has been here.
More vexing for Oien, a Republican, is the fact that no GOP presidential candidate has shown up to campaign in this conservative enclave an hour north of Las Vegas -- but three Democratic contenders have.
All of this has Oien concerned that the Jan. 19 caucuses could turn out to be a bust, and that the state could go to the Democrats in the 2008 general election.
“It’s really galling me,” Oien said during a lull between the breakfast and lunch crowds. “As angry as people are with the president, you’d think the Republicans would be pushing [their candidates]. But it seems like they’re laying back in the weeds.”
When the Nevada Democratic and Republican parties decided to move their caucuses to Jan. 19, they gambled that the major presidential contenders would have to campaign in the West, where voters were believed to be concerned about such regional issues as water rights, management of federal lands and a proposal to bury nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. Polls show that Nevadans are most concerned about the same problems as the rest of the country -- the war in Iraq, healthcare, national security and immigration reform.
And even with today’s Democratic debate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas -- the third Democratic forum in the state; the GOP has held none -- candidate visits have been few compared with other sanctioned early-voting states. According to the Washington Post’s Campaign Tracker, candidates have visited Nevada 162 times this year, compared with Iowa’s 1,654, New Hampshire’s 806 and South Carolina’s 349.
And in delegate- and cash-rich California, candidates have visited 297 times, and the state doesn’t vote until Feb. 5.
Still, the Democratic candidates have been paying more attention to Nevada than the Republicans, including campaigning in the Republican-dominated “rurals” like Nye County.
Among the Democrats, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut have each visited Pahrump once. Clinton has opened a headquarters just north of town, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign is to open one this weekend.
A planned campaign stop here next week by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas would be the first by a GOP hopeful, despite the party’s 9,200-to-7,600 lead in Nye County registrations. And none have offices here.
That could help explain the results of a CNN poll released Wednesday in which 68% of likely Democratic Nevada caucus-goers said moving the nominating contest to Jan. 19 was good for the state, compared with 49% of their GOP counterparts.
The same poll showed Clinton with 51% support among Democrats, with Obama, her closest rival, at 23% -- a lead that University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political analyst David Damore said could sap even more interest from the caucuses.
“If Hillary continues her momentum in the state, I don’t think [the caucuses will] be that competitive,” Damore said. “That may depress turnout.”
Republican candidates are ignoring Nevada while trying to establish their social conservative credentials in places like South Carolina, Damore said. He agreed with Oien that what happens here over the next two months could set the stage for who wins Nevada’s electoral votes next November.
Yet interest in the caucuses is so low that the state AARP recently canceled an issues-oriented survey because pollsters couldn’t find enough AARP members who said they were “absolutely certain” they would take part in the caucuses.
Kate Mucci, who co-hosts a cable news show, said: “I don’t think people realize the importance of the caucus in picking who we have to vote for. People are so caught up in functioning day to day.”
No one has offered a threshold for the caucuses’ success or failure, but both parties have recently been downplaying their expectations. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters this week that he still believed 100,000 Democrats would show up for the caucuses, holding to an estimate that most Democrats here have dropped.
State Democratic communications director Kirsten Searer said the party expected 30,000 to 40,000, in line with Iowa’s turnout for its first caucus in the 1970s.
Republicans say they are equally hopeful, arguing that just because hopefuls have spent little time here doesn’t mean they won’t campaign in places like Pahrump in the future.
“Mitt Romney just put a staffer up there,” said state GOP executive director Zachary Moyle. “They’re going to get Ron Paul up there next week, and once Ron Paul is there . . . Romney and the other candidates [will] start filtering their way out.”
Chuck Muth, a conservative blogger and strategist from Carson City, who helped persuade state Republican leaders to join the Democrats in holding caucuses on Jan. 19, stands by the decision to move the date up.
“If candidate attention in Nevada with the Jan. 19 date is light, I believe it would have been nonexistent had they stuck with Feb. 7,” Muth said.