Nevada hosts second in the nation caucus

CARSON CITY, Nev. -- Political junkies are getting a fix in vice land.

Nevada, the 36th state but the first when it comes to adult entertainment, is hosting the second-in-the-nation caucus and it is already becoming a circus.

"What do you think of legalized prostitution?" a reporter shouted to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards after the first Democratic presidential candidates’ forum here yesterday. He blushed, breaking into a big, boyish smile.

"I can’t believe you asked me that," Edwards said as he made for the exit without answering.

You won’t hear that at Geno’s Chowder and Sandwich Shop in Portsmouth, or at any other classic stop for presidential hopefuls in New Hampshire.

Welcome to the Silver State, where brothels are legal and slot machines are everywhere. The state is embarking on a new political frontier, its caucus possibly coming three days before New Hampshire’s leadoff presidential primary. Eleven months from the caucus, Nevada is undergoing an image makeover to redirect attention to western issues, its diversity and its working families.

But Nevadans are not shying away from their colorful and booming gambling and prostitution industries.

"We’re the sin state," said George Higgins, the 22-year-old chairman of the Nevada College Republicans. "It’s what makes Nevada great."

Guy Rocha, the state’s archivist, said Nevada is more mainstream and less maverick than its national perception. "There’s this idea of a wasteland and a vice land," he said. "Nevada isn’t just Las Vegas."

As Nevada makes a great hullabaloo with its new early caucus, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner has the authority to set the presidential primary date. By law, he must schedule it at least a week before any other similar election. And the scuttlebutt among long-time political observers is Gardner might move up the date from the Jan. 22 date listed by the Democratic National Committee.

Complicating the election calendar, some two dozen states are considering moving their primaries up to capture more attention and to play more of a role.

State Rep. Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, wrote the law that provides the secretary of state set the primary date at least seven days ahead of another similar election. He said Gardner retains the authority, an obligation that is not influence by Democratic National Committee consultants.

The Nevada caucus, which comes four days after the leadoff Iowa caucuses, is a system in which party organization is critical for a candidate to succeed. It is unlike New Hampshire’s primary, where independent or undeclared voters can choose to participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary.

Jamal Simmons, the president of New Future Communications, a firm hired by Nevada Democrats to help organize the caucus, said the Nevada caucus would focus the candidates’ attention on western issues. Those issues include immigration, water resources, sprawl, and land management.

Simmons, who worked for presidential candidates Bob Graham and Wesley Clark in New Hampshire for the 2004 campaign, said the caucus would complement the state’s primary.

"We see it very differently, obviously," he said.

Nevada is similar to New Hampshire in that the state stands to be a battleground state in 2008. It is traditionally a Republican state, with a long Libertarian streak. In the 2006 mid-term election, there were nearly an equal number of Democrats and Republicans in the voter registration total.

The Democratic candidates campaigning in Nevada yesterday appeared individually at the forum, avoiding intra-party confrontation as they saved their criticism for President Bush’s management of the war in Iraq. All seven of the major candidates appeared, except for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whose campaign cited a scheduling conflict.

Despite his absence, his campaign waged a press release battle throughout the day with Clinton's after Hollywood media mogul David Geffen and Obama fundraiser criticized the New York senator as polarizing. The back-and-forth sniping was in contrast to a rather uneventful forum, though Clinton referenced the slight and promised to run a positive campaign.

"We should focus on what we should do for America," Clinton said at the forum.