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Nevada GOP Works to Retake State From Obama

David Becker/Getty Images
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval has met with three GOP presidential candidates in advance of the state’s 2012 nominating caucuses.

Heller said that whether the state GOP would be stronger in 2012 was a part of his calculus in deciding whether to run for Senate. Given what is expected to be a muscular and technologically advanced Obama ground game — the president announced for re-election Monday with a video that featured a Nevada family — Heller wanted to know that his campaign would have support. The Reno-area Congressman’s optimism is based partly on his expectation for a successful caucus.

“The most important thing is, we’ve already started. We didn’t get started very early last time,” said Heller, the former three-term Nevada secretary of state who is seeking the seat being vacated by scandal-plagued Sen. John Ensign (R). “If we do all the right things, I think we’ll see a very good turnout.”

Ed Espinoza, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic operative with extensive Nevada experience, argued that the Republican effort would face numerous obstacles and that success could prove elusive.

“Nevada is an incredibly difficult state to organize in. If you haven’t been successful before, the learning curve you’re going to have in 2012 is going to be quite steep,” said Espinoza, who ran Bill Richardson’s Nevada caucuses campaign in 2008 and directed Reid’s Latino outreach program in 2010. “The machine that Democrats have built wasn’t built overnight. It was built over many years with the best political operatives in America.”

The Obama team believes it will win Nevada again in 2012, thanks in part to its work with Hispanic voters.

But Sandoval, having already been visited by three likely GOP presidential candidates — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and 2008 caucuses winner and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — believes that the strategy of using the caucuses to generate attention from White House hopefuls is already working. Still unclear is whether the format will engender the enthusiasm and volunteer get-out-the-vote army needed to beat Obama and whip up a downballot tail wind.

The Western Republican Leadership Conference, which has received the blessing of the Republican National Committee, is viewed as a key component of the Nevada GOP’s plans to transform its caucuses in an effort to make the state more prominent and to gather a grass-roots army for the 2012 campaign. Though attributed partly to Bush fatigue, in 2008 more than 100,000 Nevadans participated in the Democratic presidential caucuses, compared with 44,324 who attended the Republican caucuses.

The presidential candidates will be invited to speak at the WRLC, and Nevada Republicans also hope to host a televised debate. The state party plans to use the conference to gauge the enthusiasm of its activist base and test its voter-turnout abilities by seeing how many attendees it can draw. The event will feature seminars on how the caucus works, offer classes on political organizing and contribute to the party’s major priority of registering voters.

“We’ve had a major disadvantage when it comes to voter registration,” said Cory Adair, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party who arrived from Mississippi in March 2010. “Our focus in 2012 is going to be on creating opportunities to close the gap.”

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