As State Archivist Guy Rocha said recently, the road to the White House now goes through Nevada because Saturday's statewide caucuses will help to clarify presidential nomination races in both major parties. As I write, it appears that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will battle it out for the Democratic nomination while John McCain and Mitt Romney are the top Republican contenders.
That's not the way things looked just one month ago, when Sen. Clinton was thought to be a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination and McCain was running well behind Romney and Rudy Giuliani, which only goes to show how quickly the situation can change in this front-loaded primary season. We'll know who the nominees will be soon after "Super Tuesday," Feb. 5, when more than 20 state primaries are scheduled.
Senators Clinton and McCain were the comeback kids in last Tuesday's hard-fought New Hampshire primary. She surprised herself and her supporters by beating Obama by three percentage points, 39-36, despite pre-election polls that showed her trailing the charismatic Illinois senator by double digits. Although Obama is an inspirational speaker, he has very little experience in national security or foreign affairs, which would hurt him in a general election campaign. McCain, who was counted out last year, rebounded strongly in New Hampshire with a five-point (37-32) victory over Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who had expected to win his neighboring state. Romney hopes to chalk up his first primary win by defeating McCain in Michigan on Tuesday.
The other Democratic contender, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, finished far back in New Hampshire at 17 percent; if he doesn't win the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26, he's out of the race. In my opinion, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, (D), who dropped out on Thursday, is now running for vice president as is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee of the GOP. Even though Huckabee surprised everyone by winning Iowa, he simply doesn't have the money or the organization to mount an effective national campaign.
What is most surprising to me is how far and how fast Republican contenders Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson have fallen in recent weeks. Late last year Giuliani, "America's Mayor," was the GOP front-runner in national polls and Thompson was widely seen as the most viable conservative alternative to moderates Giuliani and Romney. But Giuliani decided to concentrate on the Jan. 29 Florida primary and big Super Tuesday states like California and New York while former Tennessee Sen. (and "Law & Order" star) Thompson seems to be sleepwalking through primary season. If Giuliani and Thompson don't soon show signs of life, they'll be out of it, too.
Looking ahead to the Nevada caucuses, I think Obama will repeat his Iowa triumph over Mrs. Clinton after endorsements from two powerful unions, the 17,500-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, which is strong in Las Vegas. Among the Republicans, Romney should ride a wave of Mormon support to defeat McCain, and I expect libertarian Ron Paul to do surprisingly well in our maverick state.
IOWA AND BEYOND
Looking back at the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Obama demonstrated a Kennedy-esque flair for soaring rhetoric that inspired younger voters while Mrs. Clinton carried the over-40 crowd. Baptist minister Huckabee won the Republican race by appealing to Evangelical voters, 60 percent of whom supported him. That was a Bible Belt phenomenon, however, that won't carry over to the rest of the nation, although Huckabee will do well in the South.
Voter turnouts set records in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Nearly 350,000 Iowans participated in this year's caucuses compared to only 250,000 in 2004. And in New Hampshire the spirited race between Clinton and Obama attracted more than 450,000 voters to the polls compared to the previous primary record turnout of 396,000.
A highly respected political columnist, David Broder of the Washington Post, cautioned against drawing erroneous conclusions based on the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, pointing out that those are two of the most unrepresentative states in the union with relatively few minority voters. "When you're reading the returns from the Iowa caucuses, remember that you're viewing them through a double distortion mirror," Broder wrote. "The turnout is ridiculously small ... and those who choose to caucus are hardly representative of the population as a whole." He added that "large and enthusiastic rally crowds tell you almost nothing about the dynamic of the decision-making process," which is worth remembering in Nevada and elsewhere.
Broder thinks that "New Hampshire is a more reliable, less distorted lens through which to view the presidential landscape than Iowa," which is good news for senators Clinton and McCain. But Nevada is much more representative than either of those states and for the first time the Silver State is a significant player in the national presidential nomination process. See you at the caucuses on Saturday.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, has been an observer of state and national politics for more than 40 years.