For GOP candidates in Nevada, stumping is a high-stakes gamble

This is not a place of farmhouses, mom-and-pop diners, chitchats with voters over apple pie. This is a place of neon signs, abandoned homes, billboards promising quick vasectomies and slot machines shouting: Wheel! Of! Fortune!

Nevada is a landscape unlike any the Republican presidential field has seen. A few days of mad-dash campaigning in advance of Saturday's caucuses presented the four candidates with an uncomfortable choice: Do you let the Vegas in?

Most tried to keep it out. And failed.

PHOTOS: Campaign 2012 highlights

Rick Santorum had to answer questions about a sex scandal that had nothing to do with Herman Cain. Mitt Romney said he wasn't much for gambling, but still snagged the Strip's gaudiest endorsee: Donald Trump. Ron Paul embraced Nevada's live-and-let-live ethos, rallying the ladies of the Moonlite BunnyRanch. And Newt Gingrich made a last-minute tip of the hat to the West's first caucus by speaking at a bar known for bikini bull-riding.

Perhaps Gingrich had succumbed to the lure of Nevada a few days earlier in Reno, when his microphone died at a local brewery. "It's all right," a man shouted from the back of the room. "We're all drunk."

For a presidential hopeful, the state is a veritable minefield. Does he voice support for legalizing online poker? Campaign near a half-finished housing development? Accept the endorsement of a man who calls himself "America's Pimpmaster General?" (That would be BunnyRanch owner Dennis Hof, who supports Paul.)

In 2008, Democratic candidates tiptoed around casino floors, lest they be photographed near a bank of slot machines. This year, Romney rallied hundreds of supporters in a Las Vegas warehouse full of toilet paper and drain cleaner. Down the street: a fizzled housing project called Treasure Valley.

"There are not a lot of places we can be indoors and have a group like this — other than having to pay a fortune for it," he said. (Hint: Try a casino.)

Paul dared to take his campaign to the Strip but chose the Four Seasons — a slot-free hotel — to rattle off the oddest of applause lines: Stop taxing tips! Get rid of airport security! A ragtag band of supporters — including a self-described "Viking drummer" — chanted, "President Paul!"

Richard Craig, a 50-year-old electrical engineer, gripped a Paul campaign sign and a plastic water bottle from Hooters filled with Glenlivet. The Texas native is here on a six-month contract.

"By the time I get back to Texas maybe he'll have won a state or two," he said.

Politics here has long been a product of the state's vice-is-virtue spirit. Nevada, after all, considered the legalization of gambling and quickie divorces as forms of economic development. It possessed the kind of chutzpah needed to plop a string of casinos in the Mojave Desert and expect them to make everyone rich. People flock here for second — and third — chances, politicians included.

Santorum, however, rolled snake-eyes.

In a TV interview, the sweater-vested candidate was forced to answer for his tangential role in a sex scandal involving a former Senate colleague. Nevada's John Ensign had an extramarital affair with a top aide's wife, and his friend Santorum tipped him off that the aide was trying to alert the media.

That probably didn't hurt him much, since voters here are a forgiving lot. But then — blasphemy! — he bemoaned the social costs of gambling, calling online wagering "dangerous."

In a last-gasp attempt to channel Iowa, where he eked out a minimal victory, Santorum scheduled a stop at Henderson's Omelet House — featuring the Bugsy Siegel, "an omelet you can't refuse!" At the last minute, he abandoned the event, made a brief swing through northern Nevada and fled to a state more his style: Missouri.

Gingrich took the stage one morning at a Republican hot spot in Las Vegas: Stoney's Rockin' Country, a bar that shares a plaza with a day-care center and a church. And what a stage it was: A disco ball glittered above, sawdust speckled the floor, and nearby was a tattered mechanical bull with duct-taped horns, ignored for the moment by the crowd.

"Some of you look like you've been here [since] last night," Gingrich said, though it was unclear whether he was aware of the previous night's entertainment: bikini bull-riding. The crowd — small but spirited, perhaps from drinking Bloody Marys and Baileys-spiked coffee — roared. Later, when Gingrich mentioned billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, someone screamed: "The devil!"

After the speech, Stoney's bartender Mike Roland, 26, was still leaning toward voting for Paul. But his morning wasn't a complete waste: Roland pocketed about $10 in tips. "Hey, it's more than I walked in here with," he said.

The week's most surreal moment, not surprisingly, came courtesy of the garishly coiffed Trump, who on Thursday gave his blessing to Romney's campaign. Romney's aides, sensitive to criticism of the candidate's wealth, tried to keep the Vegas out of their joint appearance — literally.

Workers walled off the marble-and-chandeliered lobby of Trump International Hotel with blue felt curtains, obscuring views of the Strip.

The Trump locale itself is a symbol of Vegas' fall. Wrapped in 24-karat-gold-infused glass, it was conceived as a high-end hotel-condominium until the economic bottom dropped out; now it operates largely as a hotel, resting among a collection of vacant lots and abandoned resort projects.

Sitting in the front row was Phil Ruffin, Trump's business partner and owner of Treasure Island, a hotel famous for its life-size pirate ships and scantily clad sirens. Ruffin had more practical concerns than the caucuses, pointing out to anyone within earshot that the Strip was lousy with good deals.

"I hope he mentions the hotel," Ruffin said. "We can use the business."

PHOTOS: Campaign 2012 highlights

michael.mishak@latimes.com

ashley.powers@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga contributed to this report.

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