Showdown over Nevada caucus pits state vs. national GOP

LAS VEGAS — An impending showdown over the date for Nevada’s presidential caucus is pitting the state Republican Party against its national counterpart, while Democrats circle around them and the GOP candidates look to cash in.

The Republican State Central Committee will vote Saturday on whether to back down from the state’s decision to hold its GOP caucus on Jan. 14, two sources told The Hill.

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If they decide to cave and move back the date of their primary — acceding to the national party’s wishes — that decision would settle the chaos that has surrounded the nominating process and the calendar dominoes would fall into place. If they hold firm, New Hampshire could make good on its threat to hold its primary in December, which the national GOP is trying to avoid.

But while Nevada party leaders seem ready to cave, it’s less clear whether the 200-member committee, with its heavy contingency of Tea Party and hard-line conservatives, will go along.

"I just think it's important that Nevada preserve its ability to be first in the West,” Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) said here Thursday, declining to say whether he supported moving the date, but saying Nevada wouldn’t be “caving” if it adjusted its caucus for the good of the system.

Nevada’s first-in-the-West status is not actually in jeopardy. What is in jeopardy is Nevada’s third-in-the-country status that both parties fought for tooth-and-nail three years ago.

The debacle over Nevada’s caucus date, with the accompanying boycotts and barbed rebuttals from New Hampshire officials, has drawn a thick red line under concerns that the Republican National Committee is losing control over the primary calendar.

RNC officials are keeping mum about their efforts to persuade Nevada to move its date to either Jan. 17 or Feb. 4, which would free up New Hampshire to hold its primary in mid-January.

“This isn’t a negotiation. Nevada is going to do what they think is best for their state,” a senior RNC official said, shooting down rumors that the national party had offered to pay for Nevada’s caucus in exchange for moving its date. “We’re going to continue working with all states to restore order to the calendar.”

And while Sandoval acknowledged he had spoken about the issue with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, he denied any awareness of carrots being dangled before the Silver State.

Priebus wrote to Nevada GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian, according to the Las Vegas Sun, asking the state GOP to move the date of its contest to Feb. 4, pointing out Nevada would retain its first-in-the-West status and reminding her: "By holding a February contest, Nevada will be entitled to its full slate of delegates and alternate delegates. A January date, as you know, would cause you to lose half of them."

If Nevada moves its date, the likely calendar schedule would look like this: the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, New Hampshire's primary on Jan. 10, South Carolina's primary on Jan. 21, Florida's on Jan. 31 and Nevada's on Feb. 4, with a long break until Michigan and Arizona vote on Feb. 28.

Florida set off this year’s debacle in September, when it moved its primary date up to Jan. 31, setting off a chaotic calendar reshuffling, with the early states of Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa scrambling to adjust their dates to preserve their status.

After Nevada announced it would hold its caucus Jan. 14 and Iowa selected Jan. 3 for its date, New Hampshire threatened to move its primary to early December to preserve its first-in-the-nation status and satisfy a state law that requires its primary not to be held within a week of a "similar" contest.

In the aftermath, most of the presidential candidates announced they would boycott Nevada's caucus for threatening New Hampshire’s position, but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry demurred.

The decision on whether to boycott involved an early-state cost-benefit calculation: Risk alienating voters in Nevada, where the candidates debated Tuesday night, or put yourself in the good graces of New Hampshire, with its long record as a make-or-break state for presidential candidates.

Romney is leading both in New Hampshire, a Northeastern state bordering Romney’s home state of Massachusetts, and in Nevada, with its substantial Mormon population. But his lead is much wider in New Hampshire, where he also has an intricate and aggressive campaign structure.

Perry stands very little chance of success in New Hampshire, where his Southern style reminds many of former President George W. Bush. But in Nevada, he has snagged Sandoval’s endorsement, and is on much more familiar ground in the Southwest than he is up north.

Meanwhile, Nevada Democrats have dispatched a good cop, bad cop approach to holding Republicans’ feet to the fire.

Hoping to give Nevada Republicans cover to buck the national party and hold firm to their caucus date, Democrats announced they too would hold their caucus on Jan. 14 — even though the Democratic caucus is a perfunctory exercise in 2012, because President Obama is running for reelection.

And when the chairman of Iowa’s GOP attacked Nevada for upsetting the order, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) came to the state GOP’s aid, telling Iowa Republicans to “back off Nevada.”

“We're trying to give them cover,” said a Nevada Democratic operative. “We’re assuming they’re going on the 14th, and we’re standing with them on Jan. 14. What other cover do they need?”

But Democrats have also pointed to the mess as a sign that the Nevada GOP is inherently weak and needs Democratic help to stand up for itself. They argue that the Republicans were premature in setting a date they didn’t have the gusto to stand behind firmly.

So Democrats have adopted a new tactic that both pressures the state GOP to stand strong and offers sheer political gain for the Nevada Democrats: shaming Republicans into not backing down.

In the most visible manifestation of that tactic, a spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party donned a giant chicken suit Wednesday and stood on an overpass leading to the Venetian Hotel, where the Western Republican Leadership Conference was under way.

“NVGOP just 2 chicken,” read the fowl’s sign.

— Cameron Joseph contributed.