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A whole new game in Nevada

Times Staff Writer

Far out in the suburbs that reach almost to the horizon here, there’s a beauty salon inside a beige-on-beige shopping center where the talk usually revolves around husbands, children, pets and affairs of the heart.

In the last few weeks, however, habitues of the tony Radichi Salon have turned their attention to a topic that once would have been taboo -- presidential politics.

One client is so fired up about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy that she plans to hire a bus to bring friends to Saturday’s Nevada caucuses.

When one Clinton backer at the salon said rival Democratic candidate Barack Obama was a closet Muslim (he belongs to a Christian church in Chicago), she got into a finger-wagging spat so hot that the proprietors posted signs: “No Politics Zone.”

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Notoriously transient and politically disengaged, Nevada has fought its way to the front of the presidential nominating calendar for the first time, a coming-out party that has locals both anxious and thrilled.

“There has never been anything like this before,” said Marjorie Weiss, who has been manicuring some of Las Vegas’ best-kept hands for more than a dozen years. “We’ve never encountered talk this intense, not even on Britney Spears.”

Silver State organizers believe they have done everything they can to prepare for their moment in the spotlight, said veteran Las Vegas political commentator and newspaper columnist Jon Ralston.

But as the caucuses expand from a cozy conclave (9,000 showed up in 2004) to a mass event that could draw 50,000 or more, party activists can’t help but worry about a low turnout or glitches in the complex delegate calculation.

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“That could destroy any credibility the state has, and then we won’t have an opportunity to participate this way again,” Ralston said. “I think [caucus officials] have their fingers crossed; I think they are praying every day that it all works out.”

The Democratic National Committee agreed in 2006 that it would move Nevada to the front end of the primary calendar, creating an early-voting foothold in the West and engaging minority voters while the presidential nomination was still up for grabs. The state has a significantly higher Latino population (24%) than the two states that traditionally kick off the campaign season -- Iowa and New Hampshire -- and than the nation as a whole (which is nearly 15% Latino).

Nevada Republicans also will be caucusing Saturday, but their contest amounts to a nonbinding straw poll that has drawn little notice from most of the major GOP candidates.

The early-voting strategy has brought Nevada the attention it dearly wanted, as Democratic front-runners Clinton and Obama organized early and advertised heavily here. For most of the last week, they have skipped from town hall meetings to round-table discussions, focusing on the population centers around Las Vegas and Reno.

Veteran Democratic consultant and ad man Billy Vassiliadis -- his firm brought the world the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” slogan -- pointed with pride to overflow crowds the candidates had drawn. “The number of calls I got for debate tickets this week was damn near what I get for a great show or a big boxing match,” he said. “Everyone wanted to get in.

“People are looking at this with a lot of pride,” he added, “almost like hosting an Olympics.”

Nevada has a lot to prove when it comes to political engagement. Just 59% of the voting-age population cast ballots in the 2004 general election, the eighth-worst voting rate in the nation. (Hawaii was last at barely over 50%.)

Activists are working hard to make sure participation is high for Saturday’s caucuses.

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Tom Vanderpool, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1107, said there was “some confusion” among his membership about how the caucuses work.

But the statewide local, which backs Obama, has held two dozen training sessions for its members.

“I think people got comfortable,” Vanderpool said. “I’m impressed by the level of enthusiasm.”

Barbara Lee, 54, has no doubts about turning out Saturday in her North Las Vegas neighborhood. An African American who plans to caucus for Obama, she wouldn’t hear it when her husband complained that he didn’t have time for a two-hour caucus.

“I said to him, ‘It’s a historical event now, so you just have to lump it,’ ” said Lee, a middle-school math teacher. “I told him, ‘Get out there and do what’s right.’ ”

Other than the candidates, perhaps no one has as much riding on Saturday’s outcome as U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. The Nevada Democrat and Senate majority leader played a crucial role in bagging the early caucuses for his state. In November, Reid predicted that 100,000 voters would turn out for the sessions, which will be held at 520 locations.

Almost all of the activists here expect the sessions to draw at least 35,000 -- stepped-up involvement they believe will pay off in the general election with increased canvassing, phone banking and campaign contributions.

In the past, Nevadans felt like stepchildren, their primary-season presidential votes hardly making a ripple on the national scene. Said Weiss, the manicurist: “It was like being Wyoming.”

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The move to the front of the calendar has made all the difference, even in a nail parlor once divorced from the political hurly-burly.

“This is the first time we have a chance to be heard early,” said Kathy Burns, a longtime colleague of Weiss’. “People really want their voices to be heard out in the country.”

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james.rainey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.


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