Bush aided by strong rural vote in Nevada

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CARSON CITY - Republican George W. Bush won Nevada's four electoral votes because of his support of gun rights, a right-of-center philosophy - and no Ross Perot as a presidential candidate.

He benefited from heavy rural turnout and ''reverse coattails,'' thanks to the strong performance of GOP Sen.-elect John Ensign. Bush also co-opted Democratic issues such as prescription drugs and Social Security, and scored with his support of a strong military and parental choice of schools.

That's the consensus of political party leaders, professors and other observers who watched Tuesday's general election results unfold.

The Texas governor carried Nevada 49-46 percent over Democratic Vice President Al Gore. Bush lost Clark County by about 26,000 votes, but won the state's other 16 counties.

''Bush is right of center but not a right-wing nut, so ideologically he's not too far from where Nevada is,'' said Eric Herzik, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. ''There were also reverse coattails because Ensign ran better than Bush.''

One reason Bush ran strong in northern Nevada was his support of the constitutional right to bear arms. Gore favored the ban on assault rifles pushed by the Clinton administration.

''You've got families up here that have been here four or five generations, and they've grown up on the land and a gun is part of their heritage,'' said Terry Campbell of the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute in Reno. ''For someone to say, 'We're going to take that heritage away from you,' is not going to fly up here.''

UNLV political science department chairman Ted Jelen also said that Bush ''appealed to the libertarian streak that's so dominant in this political culture.''

''His refrain was, 'He (Gore) trusts government and I trust you,' '' Jelen said. ''He also apparently convinced enough people in Nevada that there wasn't a big difference between him and Gore on nuclear waste.''

It also helped Bush that popular GOP Gov. Kenny Guinn went to bat for Republican candidates by walking local precincts the weekend before the election.

''Guinn was one of the first governors to endorse Bush,'' said Ryan Erwin, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party. ''He worked hard for Bush and has open-door access to him.''

In Nevada's U.S. Senate race, Ensign, a former congressman who narrowly lost to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid two years ago, had a clear advantage over Democrat Ed Bernstein in terms of campaign money and organization. It showed in Ensign's 55-40 percent victory to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan.

Bernstein got a late start and was saddled with high negative ratings because he's a personal injury attorney. After trailing by more than 30 points in polls, Bernstein played up his abortion rights stance and attacked Ensign's anti-abortion stand, closing the gap to about 10 percent in September. Bernstein had hoped his position would attract female voters.

''Unfortunately for Ed Bernstein you can only go so far on an issue that divides people such as abortion,'' Erwin said. ''I certainly think it helped shore up his base, but in the end I'm sure it also turned off some people.''

Exit poll findings from the race showed that 29 percent of the Democrats who voted Tuesday voted for Ensign. Only 13 percent of Republicans who voted cast their ballots for Bernstein.

The polling also showed the labor vote was evenly split between both candidates, and Ensign had a 50-44 edge with women voters. Bernstein did better with Hispanics.

Also, 40 percent of those who voted for Ensign consider themselves liberal. The moderate vote was almost evenly split between the candidates.

Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley's 52-44 percent re-election victory over Republican challenger Jon Porter in Nevada's 1st Congressional District had eerie similarities to Ensign's conquest of Democrat Bob Coffin for the same seat in 1996.

Both Ensign and Berkley are former gambling industry executives with deep campaign pockets who beat likable but underfunded state senators in Coffin and Porter in re-election bids. The only difference is that Berkley has the added advantage of representing a heavily Democratic district.

''She used her incumbency very effectively,'' Jelen said. ''She conveyed herself as someone who was working so hard for Nevada she had no time to campaign seriously.''

Jelen expects Porter to make another run at Congress in 2002, particularly with Nevada set to get a third House seat that year as a result of the state's growth.

Nevada State Democratic Party Chairman Rory Reid said the election showed that Berkley is ''about the toughest lady in Southern Nevada.''

''They called her every name in the book,'' Reid said of the Republicans. ''The national Republican Party spent hundreds of thousands of dollars against her, and she beat it all back. Her victory had to do with the fact people see how hard she works.''


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