View Full Version : Staking Claims in the Silver State

25 Oct 04,, 03:08
LAS VEGAS — Early voting had just begun and dozens of Democratic foot soldiers were crowded into a union hall in a gritty neighborhood beyond the neon-bright Strip. Marching orders were simple and urgent: Grab your list of union households, knock on their doors and make sure they vote — now.

Inspiration was provided by Jim Wasser, in town to rally the Culinary Workers Union to get out the vote for his former Navy crewmate, Sen. John F. Kerry. "Get on board now," he cried, as a British news crew captured the moment. "He does his best when he's in the trenches … I'm damn passionate … He's gonna win it."

If Nevadans need proof that their votes are crucial, they don't have very far to look. Canvassers from the Culinary Workers Union, a plethora of other outside organizations and both parties are tripping over each other to get voters to the polls. The airwaves are choked with campaign ads.

The candidates and their surrogates have all but taken up residence here in the Silver State, where President Bush has led Kerry by a relatively narrow margin for months. In the last week alone, the Las Vegas area has played host to first daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush; the president's sister, Doro Bush Koch; Kerry's stepson Chris Heinz; Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Kerry campaigned in Reno on Friday and was scheduled to be back in Las Vegas again Tuesday. He and Bush crossed paths here just 10 days ago.

As thousands of Nevadans flocked to cast early ballots in supermarkets, malls and even on the Las Vegas Strip, accusations were arising about alleged improprieties in voter registration, a possible prelude to controversies that may occur on election day here and in other states.

A Nevada Democrat filed suit Thursday claiming that a firm registering voters for the Republican Party tore up his registration form. The FBI is evaluating the accusation, which the GOP called a political smear. Poll watchers from both parties are staking out early voting sites.

"I'm not concerned about voting irregularities, but I'm concerned about poll watchers and voter intimidation," said Larry Lomax, registrar of voters in Clark County, home to about 70% of the state's population. "There are up to three or four poll watchers at early voting sites. We've never had them before. Not one poll watcher is from Nevada…. It's a whole new environment. No one cared much about Nevada before. They certainly do this election."

With a paltry five electoral votes, a nearly unbroken 82-year record of picking the man who would be president (it missed in 1976, when then-President Ford carried it) and a relatively consistent Republican bent, Nevada on its face would not seem to be fertile ground for a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Although the state's mammoth tourism economy faltered after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, nearly 97,000 jobs have been created in Nevada since Bush was inaugurated. The unemployment rate is a 3.9%, one of lowest in the nation and still dropping.

"A lot of people don't remember that after 9/11, you could shoot a cannon through several casinos and not hit anyone," said Michael Green, who specializes in political history at Southern Nevada Community College. "But Nevada, and especially Las Vegas, have done well economically, which certainly works in favor of the incumbent."

A recent poll by the Las Vegas Review Journal showed that the economy and jobs didn't even make it into the top three issues on the minds of voters — unlike most other states in the country. Those surveyed placed terrorism, the war in Iraq and morality above economic issues when considering whether to back Bush or Kerry.

Mary Owens, a 43-year-old homemaker from Las Vegas, and her husband Jerry, a 45-year-old convenience store owner, said they cast their early ballots for Bush because what mattered to them was character and the war on terrorism.

"Bush is a straightforward kind of guy," Mary Owens said. "We're both Christian. His wife is nice…. I think the economy went down the tubes for a while because of 9/11. But I don't think it's the president's fault."

Although the economy breaks in Bush's favor in Nevada, UNLV political scientist David said the president could be hurt by the issue of healthcare. The problem: "Not too many people here have it," he said. In fact, Nevada has one of the highest rates of uninsured residents in the country. According to the U.S. Department of Census, 18.3% of the state's residents do not have healthcare coverage, a rate that has risen over the last several years.

Karen Manley, a 54-year-old medical assistant, said she planned to vote for Kerry because Bush had broken promises to senior citizens, particularly on healthcare issues and insurance coverage.

"I've seen people die because they didn't have insurance," said Manley, who lives in North Las Vegas. "It's disgusting. It gets me sick. I've seen seniors who can't afford medication. It happens way too much. It's ridiculous. The United States is so advanced. There's no excuse."

Exponential growth over the last 15 years has made Nevada politically hard to read. Although it is still relatively small — with a population of 2.24 million — it has ranked as the fastest-growing state in the nation since at least 1990.

That growth shows no sign of abating, as refugees from states with colder weather, more troubled economies and more onerous tax structures continue to flood in.

The consensus is that growth has tempered the state's GOP leanings and benefited the Democratic Party. Although registration has been relatively even between the two parties, both have been feverishly registering voters. Nearly 225,000 new voters have been added since the end of January, whittling the Republicans' lead in the voting rolls from 13,227 at the start of the year to just 4,431. In 2000, however, Democrats were within about 2,000 registrants of the GOP.

The state's fastest-growing segment of the population is women and men age 60 and older — a segment that tends to vote in high numbers and adhere to more moderate-to-conservative views, especially on social issues.

As is the case with all age groups, self-interest also motivates many of these older voters.

"Politicos really have to tiptoe, especially around that retirement community," GOP consultant Steven Wark said.

He added: "Even though you have retirees who sold their little bungalow in the San Fernando Valley for $700,000 and bought their $250,000 house on the golf course with cash, they still want prescription drugs, they still want Social Security taken care of."

And then there's the national split over the war in Iraq. Just ask Anna Bernstein, 75, who strolled out of the voting booth at the Meadows Mall in Las Vegas on Wednesday with her "I Voted" sticker in hand and a look of relief on her face.

"I wouldn't vote for Mr. Bush if they paid me," said the retired Sprint dispatcher. "The biggest issue is the nonsensical war we shouldn't have gotten into. He was too quick, and now we have young men and women getting killed."

By Friday, more than 88,000 voters had joined Bernstein to cast early ballots in Clark County since voting began a week earlier. Of those, 3,412 more Democrats than Republicans had shown up at the polls, according to officials.The problem for Kerry, however, is that although most of the state's population is in the Clark County area, most of the state's Democrats are too. Political analysts believe that Kerry would have to carry Clark County with 50% to 55% of the vote to offset the heavy Republican registration in the rest of the state — Reno and the so-called cow counties.

"I have said since the beginning that this is a lean-Bush state," said nonpartisan political analyst Jon Ralston. "I still believe that. I don't think any of the numbers we've seen in early voting do anything to change that."But an unpredictable element in the state's political calculus remains Yucca Mountain, the controversial nuclear waste repository under construction some 90 miles from Las Vegas.

While campaigning for president in 2000, Bush said he would trust courts, scientists and nuclear regulators to determine the project's fate. Two years ago, he officially declared that the mountain was the government's choice for the planned dump.

Kerry has pledged to block the proposal, calling it unsafe, unfair and inadequately tested. He is running a Yucca Mountain ad in Nevada, in which Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) endorses Kerry because "as president, he'll stop [Yucca Mountain] once and for all."

Lucille Latta, a 75-year-old retired nurse who moved to Las Vegas from Hawaii six years ago, acknowledges that Yucca Mountain is on her mind and that she worries about the dangers of transporting nuclear waste into Nevada.

And for whom did she cast her absentee ballot? "I like the president," she said as she filed out of a Bush campaign event featuring Thompson. "I feel safe with him. I look at his record. We have not been attacked since 9/11."