Like any good Western showdown, this one begins in the state’s dusty outskirts, amid cowboys, ranchers and folks wary of the federal government.
In January, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) placed second in Nevada’s Republican presidential caucus -- well behind Mitt Romney but just ahead of Arizona Sen. John McCain. Paul’s anti-establishment message played particularly well in the state’s rural swaths.
Now, as Republicans gather in St. Paul, Minn., to formally pick McCain as their presidential nominee, Paul supporters are fuming over a nasty battle that resulted in two sets of Nevada delegates vying to be seated at the convention.
One delegation is composed of state party insiders; the other is loyal to “Dr. Paul.” Lingering hard feelings from the fight could mean trouble for McCain this fall as he tries to carry Nevada, which voted Republican in the last two elections but is considered a battleground state.
A Republican National Committee panel ruled recently that neither delegate group was chosen correctly. The panel chastised the state party, saying the selection process was “flawed, inadequate and unacceptable” and that it appeared to bar “grass-roots activists.”
The panel then appointed its own delegation, which includes both state GOP picks and Paul supporters, the Associated Press reported. But even though 30 Paul delegates had arrived in Minnesota for the convention by Saturday, Paul supporters said, only four are expected to be seated.
The spat has revealed a deep fissure in Nevada’s Republican Party, which has lost its voter registration edge and has suffered because of an unpopular governor, Jim Gibbons.
Much as Democrats fear that supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton will fail to line up behind Democratic nominee Barack Obama, Republicans worry that Paul supporters will cast ballots for Libertarian nominee Bob Barr. (Paul was the Libertarian nominee in 1988.) Some polls show that Barr has the backing of as much as one-tenth of likely Nevada voters, and that McCain and Obama are in a statistical tie.
“There’s this element of libertarians who’ve never been comfortable in the Republican Party” and have latched on to Paul, said Bob Brown, a senior fellow at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a regional studies and public education program of the University of Montana. Those voters might not gravitate toward McCain, potentially handing this swing state to Obama.
“They could write in Paul, or vote for Barr, or choose not to vote. It doesn’t make any difference; what they’re not doing is voting for the Republican Party,” said Brown, a former GOP candidate for governor in Montana.
McCain aides say Paul supporters should not pose a problem. McCain’s understanding of Western land and water issues, and his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, will help Republicans carry frontier states, they say.
In 1992, Ross Perot’s candidacy helped Bill Clinton win Nevada as well as Montana and Colorado. Perot earned more than a fifth of each state’s votes. In 1996, President Clinton again took Nevada, with Perot grabbing 10%.
Two years later, a Libertarian Senate candidate siphoned enough GOP ballots to keep Nevada Democrat Harry Reid in the Senate.
This cycle, Nevada Democrats -- buoyed by record turnout for their caucuses -- carry a 75,000-person lead in voter registration, according to the secretary of state. Just three years ago, Republicans held an advantage of 1,200 voters.
Unlike Clinton, Paul is not calling for party unity. Thousands of his supporters will attend a “Rally for the Republic” on Tuesday in Minneapolis, not far from the site of the Republican convention. Some of the faithful will arrive in “Ronvoys.”
Freewheeling Nevada has proved a receptive audience for Paul’s shrink-the-government pledge. Months after the caucuses, it is not uncommon to spot Paul signs on remote two-lane roadways.
Wayne Terhune, a dentist in Sparks, Nev., registered Republican just so he could vote for Paul. Terhune liked the candidate’s promises to “keep government in a box.”
“I won’t vote for McCain, I won’t vote for Obama -- that’s a vote for tyranny,” he said.
In April, Terhune and others secured a rule change at the state GOP convention that gave Paul supporters a better chance to be elected as delegates. But before most of the ballots were counted, party officials shut down the event and turned off the lights.
Organizers said they simply ran out of time. Paul backers said the goal was to block them from winning delegates. In a nod to the controversy, the Nevadans for Ron Paul 2008 website sells T-shirts that quip, “Don’t Gavel Me, Bro!”
The state party and national GOP officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The state party tried to hold a second convention in July but could not muster a quorum. Instead, it chose a roster of party loyalists to go to Minnesota. Paul supporters balked, and the dispute wound up before the GOP convention panel.
“It would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high,” said Terhune, who came to Minnesota as a Paul supporter but did not end up in the Nevada delegation. The GOP offered him passes to this week’s festivities, but he’ll probably attend only events for Paul.