CARSON CITY, Nev. – Political eyes may be trained on a Midwestern state known for cheese, a professional football team and the next big battle in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but first up are the caucuses taking place Saturday in Nevada and the District of Columbia.
Sen. John Kerry (search), the front-runner, was visiting Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday to attend a late-night rally along with a caucus meeting. He was the only candidate expected to make an appearance before the caucuses.
There have been no polls and little in the way of campaign ads in Nevada, a sharp contrast to Tuesday's Wisconsin primary. But Kerry, who has won 12 of the 14 primaries and caucuses thus far, is given the edge here. He is backed by several Democratic state officials, who like his long-standing opposition to placing the nation's nuclear waste dump in southern Nevada.
President Bush angered many Nevadans in 2002, including Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn (search), by putting his signature on a plan to create the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump 90 miles from Las Vegas.
Bush narrowly defeated Democrat Al Gore in the state in the 2000 presidential election, winning Nevada by 4 percentage points. Democrats have taken note of the narrow victory along with opposition to Bush's decision on the nuclear waste dump in including Nevada in their strategy for winning back the White House.
"It obviously is a key, key state to the party," Democratic Party chief Terry McAuliffe said last month. "We need the Electoral College votes." The state has five electoral votes; 270 are needed to win the presidency.
Republicans want to keep the state, with an electorate about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, in their win column. GOP chairman Ed Gillespie stumped for Bush on Thursday and first lady Laura Bush was expected in Las Vegas late next week for a round-table discussion about jobs. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also have visit to raise money for their re-election campaign.
At a dinner speech in Reno, Gillespie criticized Democrats for questioning Bush's military service and asserted that they were planning to wage "the dirtiest campaign in modern presidential politics."
"This is because they don't want a debate on the issues, and they don't want to run on Senator Kerry's record," Gillespie said, according to excerpts of his prepared remarks. "I guess I can't blame them for that."
Gillespie has questioned the Massachusetts senator's commitment to national security. Strategists say the GOP hopes eventually to depict him as a liberal whose rhetoric is often at odds with his nearly 20-year Senate record.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has said he plans no endorsement until after the caucuses, said the nuclear waste dump issue would be a factor in how people vote. He said presidential hopeful John Edwards, a Senate colleague from North Carolina, has not always voted with Nevada.
"John Kerry has always been on the right side of the Yucca Mountain issue," Reid said.
At stake Saturday are 40 pledged delegates; 24 in Nevada and 16 in Washington, D.C. It takes 2,161 delegates to the Democratic National Convention to win the nomination.
In the District of Columbia, however, some voters may appear confused about Saturday's voting.
That's because many went to the polls last month in the overwhelmingly Democratic city's nonbinding presidential, which former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean won after most of his rivals, including Kerry, had their names removed from the ballot.
The Jan. 13 primary was scheduled to call attention to the city's lack of voting rights in Congress. But at the national Democratic Party's insistence, no delegates were selected to preserve the New Hampshire primary's standing as the first of the presidential nominating season.
Scott Bolden, the city's Democratic State Committee Chairman, said the party is working hard to get voters to pay attention for the second time in a month.