Democrats are on a roll in Nevada

Times Staff Writer

By just about any measure, now is a fine time to be a Democrat in Nevada.

Barack Obama has built one of the most formidable political operations the state has ever seen. Party registration is soaring. The Republican governor, Jim Gibbons, may be the most unpopular state executive in the country.

The economy, which thrived for decades, is in frightfully poor shape -- for months Nevada has led the nation in home foreclosures, and unemployment stands at a 23-year high -- handing Democrats a bludgeon with which to pound the GOP.

For all of that, however, the state’s presidential race is a dead heat, making Nevada one of a dozen or so states that could decide the contest between Sen. John McCain and the senator from Illinois.

The numbers are going Obama’s way. There are 76,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans statewide, and the party has posted big gains in the Las Vegas and Reno areas, where most voters reside. Four years ago, registration tilted Republican, and President Bush won Nevada by 21,500 votes.


“All Obama needs is to get a third of those new Democrats and those numbers turn around,” said Eric Herzik, who teaches political science at the University of Nevada, Reno.

But the numbers tell only part of the story in the nation’s westernmost battleground.

Nevada is a state with a broad libertarian streak, an aversion to taxes, affection for guns and open contempt for its major landlord, the federal government, which controls 90% of state land. All of that makes it tough for a Democrat to compete statewide -- even one who isn’t black and with an odd-sounding name.

Given those pluses and minuses, there may be no better test of Obama’s campaign strategy than here in Nevada, a state that has gone with the winner in all but two presidential elections over the last century.

To win the White House, Obama hopes to dramatically boost the number of voters in November, pulling in casual participants as well as those -- particularly young people -- who have never cast a presidential ballot.

It is a calculated risk; one advantage for McCain, here and elsewhere, is that Republicans tend to be much more certain to show up on election day.

“Democrats have done a tremendous job increasing registration,” said Chuck Muth, a GOP strategist in Carson City. “The big question is whether they’ll be able to turn those people out.”

The answer could depend on people like Lori O’Neil. The 52-year-old single mother earns minimum wage overseeing housekeeping at Elko’s Motel 6. She skipped the last two presidential elections but has registered this time to vote for Obama. The economy -- “tough times . . . rough for everybody,” she said -- was a big reason.

“Food. Gas. Everything goes up, and it just gets harder and harder every day,” O’Neil said, leaning over a wooden barricade at an Obama rally this month in Elko. The Democrat, she said, “seems to be for us poor people out there.”

To ensure that O’Neil and others like her make it to the polls, the Obama campaign has built perhaps the largest turnout operation in Nevada history. In the past, Democrats tended to rely on organized labor to handle their grass-roots and get-out-the-vote efforts. That worked well in Las Vegas and Clark County, where building trades and the Culinary Union, representing tens of thousands of casino workers, enjoy considerable clout.

But Republicans often made up the difference by winning handily in Washoe County, which includes Reno, and swamping the Democrats in Nevada’s 15 other counties, known collectively as “the rurals.” Bush carried some of those counties by 3 to 1 or better in 2000 and 2004.

This time, the Obama campaign is counting on labor to supplement its organizing efforts. The campaign has opened 14 state offices, hired about 100 paid staffers and recruited more than 3,500 volunteers, many trained in neighbor-to-neighbor outreach.

The McCain campaign has opened nine offices. It will not discuss staff levels. “At the end of the day, we’ll be fully staffed with everything we need in place,” said McCain spokesman Rick Gorka, who reported a surge in volunteers after Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin joined the Republican ticket.

Democrats started with a big organizational edge as a result of the presidential caucuses in January, which were a major event in the party’s nominating fight. The campaign was ugly -- there were attack ads and court fights -- and the result was a split decision, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York winning the most votes and Obama claiming the most delegates. But the caucuses produced a huge turnout by Nevada standards -- 116,000 compared with 8,500 four years ago -- and created a strong foundation for November.

In Washoe County, for instance, Democrats have narrowed the GOP’s long-standing registration edge to about 2,300 voters, compared with a GOP lead of 14,500 in the last presidential race. Registration continues until mid-October. Obama plans to stop in Reno today.

Republicans, by contrast, have been in disarray. The caucuses, pushed forward to coincide with the Democratic contest, drew only about a third as many participants; McCain finished third behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

This summer, the national party had to step in to ensure a pro-McCain delegation was seated at the convention in St. Paul, Minn. (Some Republicans fret McCain could lose Nevada if Paul supporters stay mad.)

The governor, embarrassed by a series of scandals, has been sidelined from the presidential contest; McCain passed over Gibbons and made the lieutenant governor, Brian K. Krolicki, chairman of his Nevada campaign.

Still, the Arizona senator enjoys certain advantages, not least a contrarian image that has distanced him from the unpopular president and suits many in a state where “Live and let live” is the unofficial motto.

“I don’t think any Republican outside of McCain would stand a snowball’s chance of winning,” said Gorka, citing the GOP’s “bad brand” and “the drag of the White House.”

For all his success, Obama continues to labor under the image of a national Democratic Party many equate with big government and higher taxes, two things fiercely opposed by Nevadans -- especially the large number of independents who often decide state races.

Robert Kirkbride, one of those independents, said McCain might not represent “a big difference from what we have now,” but at least that’s better than what his opponent offers.

“Obama is talking about change, but his only change is higher taxes,” said Kirkbride, 46, a software engineer with tattoos running down his ropy arms. “McCain may end up raising taxes too, but at least not right away.”

Obama has said he would cut taxes for 95% of working families and increase them only for individuals making more than $200,000 and families making more than $250,000 a year. McCain opposes any tax hikes and would make permanent the tax cuts enacted under Bush.

Guns are another big issue -- more than 1 in 3 Nevada households contain at least one firearm -- and even though Obama promises to support the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, he didn’t help his cause by telling a Pennsylvania crowd this month that he couldn’t confiscate anybody’s guns “even if I wanted to” because there were insufficient votes in Congress. The McCain campaign has made sure that quote and its qualifier get widely circulated.

Yucca Mountain, a perennial issue in federal races in Nevada, has gotten comparatively little notice. Obama opposes the nuclear waste dump, proposed for a site 90 miles from Las Vegas. McCain has voted in favor. But analysts say most voters are too preoccupied to care much.

Race, however, is a factor in the contest, which some discuss more frankly than others. Andy (“No last name, dear, I have my reasons”) is a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton but can’t abide Obama.

“He’ll do everything -- no offense to the Negroes -- for the Negroes and cut the whites down to nothing,” the retired casino worker, 67, said between errands in downtown Reno. She doesn’t like McCain any better and may stay home on election day.

But the biggest challenge facing Obama may be connecting with Nevada voters in a way the patrician John F. Kerry and diffident Al Gore never did.

“There’s a gut feeling,” said Herzik, the professor. “Do I feel this person understands the West, understands Nevada, understands me as a Nevadan?”

Asked about competing against a pair of Westerners, Obama responded with a quip. “I’m Western,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal in an interview this month. “I’m from Hawaii. You don’t get any more Western than that.”


Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.