Before the nation turns its surely undivided attention to the Super Bowl on Sunday, it has the Nevada Republican caucuses to follow. On the eve of the state's contest, Yahoo News talked to Las Vegas Sun political reporter Anjeanette Damon to find out how this year's race compares to years' past, how important Gingrich backer (and Nevada power player) Sheldon Adelson has been to the race and which candidate is the most fun to follow on the trail.
Yahoo News: What's different about covering the 2012 race than the others you've covered?
Damon: It seems there's this inability among people here to settle on an alternative to Mitt Romney. Romney has a core of strong support here, partly because of the Mormon population. And Ron Paul has a strong following, especially among younger voters. But it seems that none of the candidates have emerged as the sort of conservative ideal. I think people are still trying to find a place to land. That was not the case in 2008. I think the debates have also changed their approach to campaigning. The campaigns don't necessarily have to have a big, structural presence on the ground, because they can reach voters in a nationally televised debate.
In December, you wrote that the candidates "have been stingy" in terms of visiting the state, relying on those national debates instead of retail campaigning. Do you still feel that way?
Now that Florida is over, everybody has arrived here, and there's a mad dash to win support from key conservatives in the state. Newt Gingrich drew this huge crowd in Reno, with people pouring out into the street at the restaurant where he was speaking. But talking to people there, it wasn't so much, "It's Newt Gingrich!" It was more like, "Well, finally we have a candidate here, let's go take a look."
Were you rooting for a different outcome in Florida? A closer race?
A Gingrich win in Florida would have put significant pressure on Romney to protect his stronghold in Nevada, upping the stakes here. But the national press doesn't seem ready to yank out the early primary mainline yet, so we're still getting plenty of attention regardless of the wide margin in Florida.
Do you think the Democrats' success in Nevada in 2008 will mean less visits from the incumbent in the general election?
No, I think both Democrats and Republicans consider this a battleground state, with a pretty even split among registered voters. Republicans believe Obama's win in 2008 was an anomaly, with everyone swept up in the enthusiasm surrounding his candidacy. It's different this time around.
Is Super Bowl weekend--and the gambling that goes along with it--overshadowing the caucuses?
I don't think so. I think many of the political reporters are into the game, so maybe there's some divided attention. But the Republican candidates are engaged in the contest. Sure, the Super Bowl is a spectacle, but it's not going to affect the voter turnout. People can vote on Saturday and have a whole day before the game.
What's your view of Sheldon Adelson? Has he been as influential in the GOP race as the national media has made him out to be? And does his support of Gingrich matter in Las Vegas?
No, I don't think the national media is exaggerating the importance of Adelson's money to the Gingrich campaign. It kept him afloat long enough for the crucial win in South Carolina, which significantly slowed down what perhaps could have been Romney's march to the nomination. Adelson and his wife have a long history of spending their personal wealth trying to influence politics, but this was the first time it had such a tangible result--even if it ultimately proves fleeting.
What does the national media not know about Nevada media?
The state is easy to stereotype. All the headlines [written by the national media] seem to refer to gambling, or legalized prostitution. All the "What Happens in Vegas …"—things like that. It's not what people here really care about, and doesn't drive votes. Of course, the national journalists are smart enough to know that, but it seems sometimes the puns are too hard to resist.
I was already thinking about using a "Fear and Loathing" pun for this Q&A, so I'll have to apologize in advance.
Oh, no, I can definitely support a "Fear and Loathing" reference.
Of all the candidates, who is the most fun to cover? The least?
Newt can certainly be combative, but he doesn't shy away from any question. I really like covering Ron Paul, he's like a college lecturer. In 2008, Mitt Romney was easy to antagonize, perhaps unintentionally. You'd ask him questions that he'd take personally, and when that happens with any candidate, it knocks them off message, and you're more likely to get them off their talking points for the day.
If you had the opportunity to moderate one of the GOP debates, what would be the first question you'd ask?
It would probably be something about the housing crisis. The candidates all seem to have this laissez-faire philosophy. But they need to defend their position. Gingrich, for instance, wants to repeal Dodd-Frank. But he needs to explain that. I don't know if it will mark the vote, but the housing issue is certainly the biggest problem here, and needs fixing.
Will the dry heat affect any of the candidates?
The dry heat will definitely be more of a concern for whoever wins the nomination and has to campaign here in the summer months for the general. Not sure a sweater vest would hold up very well.
What happens after the Nevada caucuses for you, personally? Do you get a vacation?
I have an 8-year-old, so I'll probably wait for his school break before I take a vacation. Luckily, Nevada is a pretty active state to cover politically year-round. We have a lot of problems, and a lot of characters. It's fun when the national media comes in for a few weeks, but it'll be nice when they leave.
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