Caucus pre-game: have voters' minds changed with issues?

What do you remember of last February?

A co-worker's box of Sees candy that made you slip up on your remaining New Year's resolution? A dry, sunny winter that elicited talk of global warming's reality?

Or maybe, it was a single night in Carson City; Wednesday Feb. 21, 2007 - to be exact.

That's the day newly minted Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Mike Gravel, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich and Tom Vilsack came to town.

Wes Clark, the retired general who was to make a run for the party's nomination with his "real time" strategy for the war in Iraq was also here.

Residents from both parties came from the four corners of Nevada to take part in the forum; many of whom got their first taste of the spotlight that would shine on the Silver State for the ensuing 11 months.

This morning, registered Republicans and Democrats will meet in one another's homes, at senior centers and gymnasiums in an effort to synthesize almost a year's worth of stumping, personal visits, mud-slinging, campaign promises, glad-handing and fence-sitting - to find consensus on who will be Nevada's choice for a president.

For Republicans, whose candidates did not participate in the forum, it has been 11 months of being mostly overshadowed by races in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina, which also holds its Republican caucus today. For Democrats, the Nevada caucus is the third such voter gathering this election season and the first in the West. Today's polling is carrying the "history in the making" tag from Nevada Democratic Party headquarters in Las Vegas.

"It's incredible here," said Kirsten Searer, deputy executive director for the Nevada Democratic Party from its Las Vegas headquarters Friday afternoon. "I don't know if you can hear all the noise, but we have at least 50 volunteers answering phones that are ringing off the hook.

"People are asking how to participate. People supervising caucus events Saturday (today) are getting ready to run their meetings. Everyone in Nevada knows this is really important, and we couldn't ask for a better spot on the calendar. The nation's eyes are looking to us."

Searer admitted today's caucus is more of a "half-way point" for the Democrat's election season than a finish line.

"It's become really much more intense than we thought. The good news is we have all this excitement and more volunteers in precincts than years; the challenge is taking that energy and wrapping it up and keeping it going through November."

If there's one thing she's seen thus far on the Democratic side of the campaign trail, Searer said, it's been change.

From early front-runners (remember General Clark?) dropping out, to Al Gore never throwing his green hat in in the first place; from the war in Iraq weathering some of its bloodiest months during the first quarter of 2007, to the economy taking a dive in early '08 - the voters' minds have seemingly swung on the issues as much as the candidates have since last February's forums.

Take Carson City resident Kathy Elliott, who said in the wake of last February's Democratic candidate forum her biggest concern when choosing a candidate was the war in Iraq.

During a precaucus interview Friday, her issues stance had changed.

"My thoughts on what's important really have switched," she said. "Back then, the war was number one by far. I think it's still really up there, but the economy has become the front-runner in my mind.

"The economy is a little worse than we're being told, I think - for the short and long run. Look all over the place, people are getting laid off. My son-in-law got laid off today; he works in the construction field and has had a really safe, secure job - so, I think it's going to affect a lot of people and we need to vote accordingly."

One thing that hasn't wavered is Elliott's choice in candidates, she said.

Last February, she came out in favor of former first lady Hillary Clinton: "Hillary is still my number one," she said, noting that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has also since dropped out, was her "number two."

"My dedication for who I'm going to vote for has only gotten stronger," she said. "This close race between my choice (Clinton) and Obama has surprised me. I thought she'd be farther ahead by now. I knew last February they'd try to rip her to shreds, for any possible reason.

"I try to pick through the garbage. I read and watch all kinds of documentaries and look in on every debate - Republican and Democrat. I'm a registered Democrat, but I don't always vote that way. In this case though, Hillary's my top choice and has been for awhile."

Elliott said she sees the political climate changing as much during the next 10 months as it has during the last 10.

"I think a lot of people's first choice for a candidate may not change, but their preference for dealing with other issues may - such is the way things are right now," she said.

Caucus

What you need to know today:

The Republican caucus begins at 9 a.m. at all locations throughout the state. Sign in begins 8:30 a.m. Visit the Nevada Secretary of State's Web site at sos.state.nv.us/elections/ to determine your caucus location. Participants are asked to arrive early.

The Democratic caucus sign in begins at 11 a.m. at all locations throughout the state. Caucus begins 11:30 a.m. Visit the Nevada Secretary of State's Web site at sos.state.nv.us/elections/ to determine your caucus location. Participants are asked to arrive early.

Those without Internet access can find their caucus locations on page A7 of Friday's Nevada Appeal.

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