Last year’s senate election showed one thing about the Latino vote in Nevada: It matters.
Latinos came out in full force to defeat senate candidate Sharron Angle, who had come under fire from Hispanic groups because of her hard line against immigration and TV commercials that portrayed Latinos negatively.
But the one Latino who could make a difference to the Republican presidential candidates campaigning in Nevada – popular Gov. Brian Sandoval – is staying out of the nomination fight despite his rising stature in the GOP. Or perhaps because of it.
Sandoval has invited the candidates to his office this week as they campaign ahead of Saturday's caucuses. If they make the trip to Carson City, the four — Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum — can count on a smile and a firm handshake but no public stamp of approval.
"There isn't a candidate that wouldn't love to have his support, that's for sure," said Bob List, state Republican committeeman and a former Nevada governor who endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Sandoval was quick to endorse Texas Gov. Rick Perry in this year's presidential race, only to see him drop out last month after dismal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Now, Sandoval is pledging his "full support" to whomever wins the party nomination. And he has recorded an automated phone message urging Nevada Republicans to vote in the caucuses — for any of the candidates.
Is Sandoval politically savvy or once bitten, twice shy?
Maybe a little of both.
"There's a risk of getting behind another candidate," said Robert Uithoven, a GOP strategist. "He's doing the right thing in staying out of it at this point."
After backing a loser once, avoiding the primary fray now allows Sandoval to harness his popularity and unleash it when the party needs it most — leading into November and the defining election against President Barack Obama. To that end, he's focusing on being the state's top GOP cheerleader.
Sandoval is also resisting rallying behind Romney even though most of the Republican establishment in Nevada is backing the former Massachusetts governor. Romney mentioned Sandoval during a Florida debate last month as being at the top of his list of possible Hispanic Cabinet members if he wins the White House.
In office just a year, Sandoval was elected in 2010 in a Republican wave of statehouse victories across the nation and became Nevada's first Hispanic governor.
A former state attorney general, Sandoval gave up a federal judgeship to run for governor. He beat the embattled incumbent, Jim Gibbons, in the primary by promising not to raise taxes, playing to the fledgling but vocal tea party in the state and emphasizing his conservative streak partly by endorsing a hardline immigration measure in nearby Arizona.
He courted fellow Hispanics in the general election and emphasized his low-taxes position, ending up defeating Rory Reid, the son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Over the past year, party leaders have grouped him with other Hispanic Republicans new to the national stage, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez among them, as the GOP looks to make inroads with a traditionally Democratic-leaning voting bloc.
The Republican National Committee has tapped Sandoval and others to campaign in battleground states this year as the party looks to win the White House.
Most governors in the early primary states have stayed neutral publicly in the GOP race. The exception was Sandoval — before Perry dropped out — and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who rallied behind Romney only to see him lose in her state to Gingrich.
None of the candidates has yet come to the state Capitol, likely because the governor has said he's not get-able. Gingrich asked to meet with Sandoval, but the former House speaker's campaign canceled Wednesday's meeting minutes after it was announced by the governor's office, citing a scheduling conflict.
Santorum called Sandoval on Thursday. According to a Sandoval aide, "The governor welcomed him to Nevada and thanked him for coming."
"No matter who the nominee is, Sandoval will have a seat at the table," said Sig Rogich, a GOP consultant who served as an adviser to several Republican presidents. "Everyone wants Sandoval, and I think that's a good position to be in."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.