Richardson Sees Upset in Nevada; Obama Looks to Organize

“This kind of reminds us of the days of Jimmy Carter,” Reynaldo Martinez, Nevada campaign chairman for the Richardson campaign, said last week. “[H]e gave a lot of people hope that maybe this democracy does work, maybe participatory politics does work. So everybody in Nevada is saying ‘Oh my God, I have a responsibility. I can change the course of history by advocating for whom I really want to be president.'”

More than 30 years after Carter’s win, the Richardson campaign is working to get Nevadans to support “one of their own” — a Western Democrat — in the state’s influential Democratic caucus tentatively scheduled for Jan. 19, 2008. They argue the contest, set to fall between Iowa and New Hampshire, could be the catapult to launch the presidential ambitions of another relatively unknown governor.

But Richardson’s camp is not the only group working with an eye toward the caucuses.

At freshman Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s headquarters in an office park off busy East Flamingo Road, more than 50 people gathered on a sunny Saturday morning for an organizational meeting. Even with the office not officially open and many of the walls still bare, a team of volunteers and a skeletal local paid staff were brimming with confidence — a mood fed by the recent announcement the campaign had raised $25 million in three months.

It is one of the first of 15 meetings the Obama campaign has organized to begin fueling public support for the candidate.

“We had 5,000 people here [at a March rally in Las Vegas] and there are so many logistical challenges to steering that energy and enthusiasm into, whether it is grassroots organizations people create on their own or steering them into the campaign directly so they can participate with our efforts. But basically try to get everybody going in parallel in the same direction to advance the cause,” said David Cohen, deputy state director and the top person for the Obama campaign in Nevada.

All the major Democratic candidates are spending time and money on the state, with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards speaking at the state educators’ conference and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton set to host a major town hall in the state April 29.

“She has a lot of star power for several reasons,” Chris Wicker, chairman of the local Democratic Party, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “She is a former first lady, and Bill Clinton is immensely popular. She is very popular in her own right, and she is the leading contender for the Democratic nomination, so I don’t think anybody is going to surpass her demand.”

For all the campaigns the early start may have as much to do with the need to educate and mobilize voters to participate in the caucus as it does with informing them about the candidates.

Nevada has historically had no impact on the nominating process for the presidential contests. In 2004, some 8,000 of the state’s 490,000 Democrats came out to participate in the caucus and even that was a record. This coming year, the Nevada Democratic Party expects 100,000 people will turn out to participate, but people of any party identification can walk up the day of the caucus and participate.

The party is pouring $2 million into education, training and mobilization to turn out voters next year. Republicans have discussed moving up their caucuses to match the Democrats, but a final decision on whether the GOP will support the move is still pending and for now most Republican campaigns have yet to move into the state.

The fact that those who want to vote in the caucus will need to carve out a swath of time that evening for meetings, speeches and rounds of voting has emerged as “a huge wild card,” according to David Contarino, Richardson’s former chief of staff and now campaign manager.

“The big difference is the voters aren’t as engaged as in New Hampshire and Iowa,” Contarino said from campaign headquarters in nearby New Mexico. “Those folks are used to the attention, to being the decision-makers. … The likely caucus universe [in Nevada] is far less defined and the campaigns can have an affect on it.”

The Democratic Party authorized Nevada to move its contest forward after campaigning by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and state and campaign officials who hope the distinctive politics of the West will finally have a place in the nominating process.

“The future of the Democratic Party lies in the West,” Reid said during a candidate forum in March. “I believe without any question the Western region is going through realignment. The Democrats have an opportunity to harness these events and take us to the White House.”

That realignment is a fluid thing for the campaigns working in Nevada. Party officials estimate 6,000 people move to Clark County, the Las Vegas area, each month and 2,000 leave. The changing population is a core component of the battle beginning to unfold in Nevada.

In Las Vegas, a mix of ethnicities, new populations and a heavily unionized service industry make for a complicated patchwork of coalition building and organizing for the campaigns.

Back at Richardson’s headquarters, a separate out building houses “the maps,” a wall of detailed precinct lists with neighborhoods highlighted to indicate the number of delegates in each of the 800-plus precincts in Las Vegas.

The Richardson staffers know their candidate is not in the top tier at the moment — the governor acknowledges he is “not a rock star” — but they do believe his Western credibility and appeal to the Latino population in Nevada could make him a potent candidate.

“Within the Hispanic population, they know that probably never in our lifetime will we have an opportunity to stand up and deliver for somebody who is American but happens to be Hispanic and make no mistake about it that is important,” Martinez, a Nevada political veteran who served as Sen. Reid’s chief of staff, said.

The Obama campaigners say they are less focused on motivating specific voting blocs in Nevada, but rather using the campaign Web site to help their supporters organize their own campaign.

“[The Internet] really is a core component of our effort,” Cohen said. “This is just not going to be a top-down campaign. It is going to be a grassroots campaign and as a result from Chicago and from us here at the Nevada headquarters in a lot of ways our job is to empower people to identify their supporters and run their own precinct.”

Along with engaging minorities and reaching out via the Web, Obama’s campaign will also have a healthy dose of traditional coalition building, especially in Las Vegas which experts say is largely a union town.

Several campaigns pointed to the influential role that the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Local 226 could play in the January vote. The union, which represents most of the food workers along the Strip in Las Vegas, has a well organized machine that could deliver thousands of voters to the caucuses in precincts throughout the area.