Democrats, GOP Battle Over Nevada Swing County

Barack Obama greets a supporter in Elko, Nev. i i

Sen. Barack Obama greets a supporter at a rally in Elko, Nev. The trip marked his 16th campaign visit to the state. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Barack Obama greets a supporter in Elko, Nev.

Sen. Barack Obama greets a supporter at a rally in Elko, Nev. The trip marked his 16th campaign visit to the state.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Nevada is a tossup in the polls for the presidential election, and both the McCain and Obama campaigns are spending a lot of time and money here.

In particular, the campaigns consider Washoe County, home to Reno in the northern part of the state, to be pivotal to the Nevada strategy.

GOP War Room

In a nearly abandoned strip mall in Washoe, there is a room painted Republican red, with the following message emblazoned on the wall in white paint: "The race for president in Nevada will be won or lost in this room."

The Republicans have set up an impressive phone bank to target undecided voters, independents, soft Democrats and Hillary Clinton supporters. Thirty volunteers record voters' answers to questions such as, "Are you planning to vote for John McCain and Sarah Paline this November?" and, "Would you say your support is strong, weak, or average?"

Democratic Strategy: Leave No Stone Unturned

Not far away from the strip mall, outside the King Ranch Supermarket in a largely Hispanic Reno neighborhood, Obama volunteer Xiomara Rodriguez recently trolled for new voters.

"It's like fishing. You go out sometimes, and you catch a big one. And there are other days that you just enjoy the water," she said.

The Obama campaign is counting on a strong Latino turnout here. After a long and unsuccessful time in the broiling sun, Rodriguez reeled in 19-year-old Vilma Castro and registered her on the spot.

"Did you see?" Rodriguez asked her. "Didn't take more than five minutes. Was I lying?"

Nevada is a bellwether state. With the exception of 1976, it has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1912, and Democrats are hungry for Nevada this year.

According to Terrence Tolbert, the Obama campaign's state director, voter registration is currently in favor of Democrats by 70,000, up from a deficit four years ago. In 2004, he said, his party lost Nevada by 2.5 percent – just under 22,000 votes.

"If we had had these kind of numbers four years ago or eight years ago, Nevada would have been blue," Tolbert said. "I've said this before, and I'll say it repeatedly from now until Election Day is over, we will leave no stone unturned."

Grassroots Game

The McCain campaign chair for Nevada, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, said that although he wishes there were more registered Republicans, his party knows what it needs to do to ensure victory.

"It's certainly the grassroots game, the machinery of getting out the vote," he said. "You know, it's a very complex operation. I mean there's a logistic and transportation aspect of it. You know, we know where our voters are. And I'm excited."

Republicans hope to keep the margin close in largely Democratic Clark County, home to Las Vegas and the vast majority of voters. They also have to win in Washoe County, which tilts their way, and rack up the vote in rural areas, known as "cow counties."

Lots of Attention

But the Democrats have ideas of their own. Yesterday, Barack Obama made his 16th trip to Nevada, in his third visit to Elko in the rural north of the state. It's a county where, although Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than two to one, Obama is fighting for his share of the rural vote.

"There's a reason we keep coming to Elko," Obama said to a crowd. "You know, because in the past, presidential candidates didn't come up here. Their attitude is — well, you know, if you're a Democrat, you go down to Vegas. If you're a Republican, I guess — I don't know — you just don't show up."

Three hundred miles away in Washoe County, the Democrats have successfully narrowed the Republican lead among registered voters, in part by shoring up the youth vote. Every day, campaign volunteers are out at the University of Nevada, Reno. The Obama table offers Stevie Wonder songs and sweetens the deal with plates of muffins and brownies, while a few feet over, without tunes or snacks, the McCain team has its own energized volunteers.

"We got to go see Sarah Palin," Nicole O'Dell, a freshman volunteer, told a newly registered Republican. "We had to volunteer, of course, but we did. It was a lot of fun."

The Palin Factor

The addition of Gov. Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket has scrambled the equation here, making a direct appeal to Western voters. It was no accident that Palin's first solo campaign appearance this past weekend was in Nevada.

"Really, really good to be here, also knowing that this is the home of the National Championships for the Air Races and the Air Show. That's really neat," Palin said at a rally in Carson City. "My husband is a pilot. He loves flying his little Piper Super Cub. In fact, he loves his Piper Cub so much that when our third daughter was born, he got to the birth certificate before I did, and he named her Piper."

Republicans have seen a surge in volunteers since Palin joined the ticket. Heidi Gansert, the Republican leader in the Nevada Assembly, said the governor's sincerity and accessibility appeals to voters.

"I think they are identifying with her, and they are identifying with her family," Gansert said. "And so they believe that she's going to best represent them because she's not that overly polished politician. She's somebody that feels real, seems real, seems to understand what's happening with our nation, and they want that."

But in one of Reno's wealthiest neighborhoods, an overwhelmingly Republican area near the edge of the city, Obama precinct captain Janet Webber has found a possible convert in Mary Kay Noble, an undecided Republican who said she is leaning toward Obama.

"There's issues with Palin that concern me," Noble said. "She's so pro-life. She doesn't even bend when it is rape or incest. And I don't agree with that."

Meanwhile, the McCain team is counting on its own precinct captains, to counteract people like Webber. At Reno headquarters, precinct captain Gwen Lindi stressed the importance of neighbor-to-neighborhood contact in a pep talk to volunteers.

"When you as a neighbor look in your neighbor's eye and talk about the difference in records, we will have another McCain-Palin voter," she said. "It's as simple as that. So, questions? Let's go get them."

Nevada starts two weeks of early voting on Oct. 18 in supermarkets, shopping malls and libraries. Both the Obama and McCain teams hope to persuade a lot of their supporters to vote early, so on Election Day they can focus their energies on getting their remaining core supporters to the polls.

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