Republican caucuses may put Nevada on GOP radar

After Nevada Democrats scheduled presidential preference caucuses for next January, between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, could Silver State Republicans be far behind? No, because last Wednesday they decided to hold county caucuses on Feb. 7, 2008, two days after the Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday" primaries, which will include neighboring California for the first time.

"(Caucuses) were suggested because Nevada is a pivotal state in the West, and this will give us exposure," State Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio of Reno told the capital press corps last week. "This is almost a toss-up state, so we really need to have a Republican effort here. We don't want this to be one-sided." Former Reno Assemblyman Pete Ernaut, who will organize the caucuses, said they'll require "major work and major money."

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the GOP front-runner, will be in Reno for a fund-raiser later this month as the race for the Republican presidential nomination heats up. During the Conservative Political Action (C-PAC) Conference in Washington, D.C., last weekend, Giuliani finished second to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a straw poll. Romney drew 21 percent support from conference delegates while Giuliani polled 17 percent despite his liberal views on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a favorite of the Religious Right, garnered 15 percent support and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was close behind at 14 percent. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was a no-show at the conference, finished last at 12 percent.

In fact, McCain is fading fast and now trails Giuliani by 20 points among likely Republican voters. He has been hurt by his strong support for President Bush's unpopular troop surge in Iraq, and his "Straight Talk Express" act is wearing thin with some voters. According to the Washington Post, Christian conservatives were split between McCain and Romney, with Brownback and Gingrich waiting in the wings. But Giuliani's unexpectedly strong showing at C-PAC makes the race even more interesting and unpredictable.

Romney, identified by CNN as the GOP's "insider favorite," hosted a private reception for Christian radio and TV hosts during a religious broadcasters' convention in Orlando last week and will be the commencement speaker at Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University in May. Not to be outdone, McCain was feted by another right-wing icon, Rev. Jerry Falwell, at the broadcasters' convention and last May the Arizona senator - who once branded the TV preacher as "an agent of intolerance" - delivered the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University, which proves once again that politics makes strange bedfellows.

The co-author of the highly touted McCain/Feingold Bill has also flip-flopped on campaign finance reform and now accepts big campaign contributions from people he once denounced. One of them is wealthy businessman A. Jerrold Perenchio, who's raising millions of dollars for McCain as co-chairman of the senator's national finance committee. But just 18 months ago, McCain went to court to try to curtail Perenchio's political influence, accusing the tycoon of attempting to evade and violate McCain/Feingold by donating $9 million to a questionable special interest group.

You may recall that McCain was a member of the infamous "Keating Five" in the early 1990s - five senators who pressured federal authorities to take it easy on savings and loan magnate Charles Keating even as they accepted his donations and favors. So although McCain is a genuine war hero who usually has the courage of his convictions, he doesn't always live up to the high ideals he preaches. Also, he's the oldest GOP contender, which hurts him when he appears alongside younger candidates.

Giuliani has his own problems with the Religious Right because of his support for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. Nevertheless, he appeals to many conservatives because of his strong track record on law enforcement and national security. The vigorous and aggressive leadership he showed after the 9/11 terror attacks made him "America's Mayor" and contrasts sharply with George W. Bush's weak and vacillating leadership on those key issues in recent years.

As for Romney, who calls himself a "true conservative," he's done some flip-flopping of his own on abortion rights and gay rights, which he supported during his successful gubernatorial campaign in 2002. Now he favors "the right to life" and opposes gay marriage. Moreover, Romney's Mormon faith is a wild card factor in the presidential sweepstakes as he deals with the same problem that President Kennedy faced in 1960 as the first Catholic candidate for president.

So GOP candidates continue to jockey for position as Nevada Republicans look ahead to county caucuses next February. Both major party races are wide open and we're going to be deluged by presidential wannabes over the next 9 or 10 months, as we were on Feb. 21. Fasten your seat belts because it's going to be a wild ride.

• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and longtime political observer, resides in Carson City.


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