Nevada and the caucus: Be careful what you wish for

When Nevada Sen. Harry Reid maneuvered his state into the early presidential primary season, there were cheers from those weary of Iowa and New Hampshire getting to pick the presidential candidates every four years.


The move sandwiched Nevada between the two traditional early states. But then Iowa and New Hampshire had their collective hissy fits and moved their contests up even earlier. So much for change.


After an initial rush, the Democratic candidates cut back on their visits to the Silver State to concentrate on Iowa and New Hampshire. The Republican caucus, which is more like a straw poll, never caught on. Most of that side's candidates didn't bother to visit at all. It looked like the Nevada caucus was going to be one big fizzle.


Six days changed all that.


For the Democrats, what six months ago appeared like an anointment of Hillary Clinton suddenly morphed into a sweep by Barack Obama that was launched in Iowa. There was talk that, trailing badly in the New Hampshire polls, Clinton might even drop out before the Nevada Caucus as the Obama Express looked unstoppable.


But then Hillary won New Hampshire, and now we have a dead heat. And because of the date switching, there is a week and a half for the candidates to fight over Nevada and claim momentum going into Super Duper Tuesday on Feb. 5. There are even some signs Republicans might get interested in Nevada after they duke it out in Michigan on Tuesday.


Be careful what you ask for, Nevada.


Besides the chance to get some face time with the presidential candidates, we are now getting the television commercials, the mailers and the phone calls. Prepare for the canvassers coming to your door. The top Democratic candidates had nearly 10,000 campaign workers in Iowa. Who knows how many they will mobilize to knock on doors in Nevada.


Fortunately, the campaigning in Nevada is pretty clean so far. But with the stakes so high, the urge to go on the attack will be tremendous.


Nevada was supposed to give voice to western issues. Too bad the only western candidate on the Democratic side, Bill Richardson, has dropped out already. So the only western issues that will get aired are the required pander on stopping the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, and immigration.


And since the Republicans haven't really showed up to debate which one of them will deport more people, immigration isn't getting much attention.


The Nevada caucus system would seem to favor establishment candidates like Sen. Clinton. Unlike Iowa, independents have to register as Democrats to participate. Former Sen. John Edwards would seem to have an edge with the big labor unions, except that Obama was able to sweep in and capture their support last week.


It looks like this will be a real shootout.


What may make Nevada really unpredictable is the fact there has never been a caucus like this before. With no history to go on, pollsters haven't a clue about how to judge the turnout, or which candidate will be able to get their supporters to participate. If you think the New Hampshire polls were bad, any poll done in Nevada for this caucus is probably not any better than a wild guess.


It could be that being thrust into the spotlight for the first time will drive more Nevadans to show up. But the confusion over how caucuses work may also scare people away.


Can Nevada give one of the candidates the momentum to win it all? Or will the result lead to an even more fractured picture? Either way, it will be Nevada's day in the sun. She better enjoy it, because I doubt it will come around again anytime soon.




• Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at kirkcaraway.com.

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