Nevada builds its presidential caucus, hopes they will come

Three months ago, with his state ascending to second place in the Democratic presidential nominating process, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sent a letter to the potential 2008 hopefuls urging them to “campaign in Nevada vigorously.”

Three months ago, with his state ascending to second place in the Democratic presidential nominating process, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sent a letter to the potential 2008 hopefuls urging them to “campaign in Nevada vigorously.”

It’s still early, but about the only candidate who could be accused of vigor in Nevada is Tom Vilsack, the long-shot Iowa governor who has visited the state four times, including a formal jaunt last week. The state has yet to play host to Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive frontrunners for the nomination, and has received a smattering of the other potential candidates.

As Nevada irons out the details of its newfound early caucus and hopes for the best, the major candidates have largely continued to focus on the old mainstay early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. State Democrats expect to start narrowing the gap after New Year’s.

Experts agree that the caucus’s status will increase when the major candidates take it seriously and start spending real time there. For now, the New Hampshire primary, downgraded from second- to third-in-the-nation status by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) this year, appears to be maintaining its top-two lure.

Obama was in the Granite State over the weekend for his first visit, and the resulting hoopla was something of a coup for state Democrats. They have heartily resisted New Hampshire’s demotion and are threatening to spurn the DNC by moving its primary day back in front of Nevada’s, citing state law that it must be the first of its kind in the nation.

As things stand now, Iowa’s caucus is set to kick things off Jan. 14, followed by the new Nevada caucus Jan. 19, the New Hampshire primary Jan. 22 and the South Carolina primary Jan. 29.

Complicating matters further for Nevada is the possibility of other states also attempting to move their contests forward. The DNC has threatened not to count the delegates for any candidate who campaigns in states that don’t follow its rules, and it is preparing to fight frontloading by awarding bonus delegates to states with later contests.

Clinton was scheduled to visit Nevada in October to support gubernatorial candidate Dina Titus (D), but canceled plans amid a record snowstorm in New York and did not reschedule. Obama’s office said he is spending time with his family and doesn’t have anything planned, in Nevada or elsewhere, through the New Year.

Neither Clinton nor Obama is a declared candidate, but that hasn’t stopped many possible presidential contenders from flooding Iowa and New Hampshire.

According to statistics compiled by George Washington University’s Democracy in Action project, since a DNC committee recommended the new Nevada caucus date in July, Obama has visited Iowa twice and New Hampshire once. And with the exception of Clinton, who remained focused on her Senate reelection battle and hasn’t traveled much, all of the major candidates have been to both Iowa and New Hampshire, amassing about two dozen trips combined to each state.

Over the same span, Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), have all been to Iowa at least three times, and Bayh, Biden, Edwards, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Kerry have all been to New Hampshire at least three times.

The candidates who have been to Nevada over that span include Bayh (once), Gen. Wesley Clark (twice), Dodd (once), Edwards (twice), Kerry (once) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D).

“Definitely, we’re getting some attention here, but it’s sort of the lesser-knowns who kind of realize that Nevada could make or break them,” said David Damore, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas political science professor. “But it’s the holiday season, and all these people are not officially running yet. I think we’ll see quite a bit more after the first of the year.”

State Sen. Titus played host to many of the possible presidential candidates during her unsuccessful campaign this year. As the state’s Democratic National Committeewoman, she said all the major candidates except Obama have been in contact about visiting soon after the New Year. She said Clinton has been in communication but hasn’t set anything up.

“I think they all see it as a place that is potentially in their camp, because Nevada’s wide open,” Titus said. “We’ve always been pretty independent, so there’s no real frontrunner at this point.”

Titus said that candidates are waiting for the state to get its “act together,” including finalizing the caucus rules and where the meetings will be held.

She said that temporary rules have been sent to the DNC for review and that final decisions should be made by the next Central Committee meeting in March. The party yesterday signed up former Iowa Democratic Party head Jean Hessburg, who ran the 2004 Iowa caucuses, and Jayson Sime, another Iowa operative, along with a communications team.

Without years of experience holding major early contests and with a relatively disorganized party system, the party structures are facing new challenges, said Democratic consultant Dan Hart.

“I think, for some of the candidates, the definition of what’s going to happen here has been lacking, and the state party’s still working out the kinks as far as how the whole thing’s going to look,” Hart said. “But that process will accelerate and has been accelerating since the election.”

Damore said the national party’s backing lends legitimacy to the caucus and should help it succeed in ways other attempts at competing with Iowa and New Hampshire haven’t.

“The big question is: Is Nevada ready for this?” Damore said. “I guess we won’t know for another year.”