MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Every four years, presidential candidates start showing up at the same fairs and diners and farms, the must-visit spots in all the early primary and caucus states. Since Republican hopefuls are once again flooding those places, we've been playing tour guide this week. But in the state we're going to hear about today, identifying the iconic spots is not as simple. Nevada only became an early voting state for the primaries in 2008.

And as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, in Nevada, the campaign trail for Republicans is still under construction.

INA JAFFE: Las Vegas may be in the middle of the desert, but once you're on the Strip, you can pretend you're anywhere. Just pick a hotel: Paris, New York, Monte Carlo. Republican candidates generally go Venetian.

(Soundbite of man singing)

JAFFE: For tourists, the Venetian Hotel means gondola rides on the indoor canal that runs through the shopping mall. But Republican candidates don't come for the ride. They come for the money. The Venetian is owned by a big-time donor to Republican causes, so it's become the default location for glitzy GOP fundraisers.

(Soundbite of man singing)

JAFFE: But a candidate who wants to meet rank-and-file Republican voters might want to head down the road a few miles to Stoney's Rockin' Country.

(Soundbite of music)

JAFFE: Stoney's looks like a dance hall crossed with a sports bar, if the only sport in the world was rodeo. And in a city dominated by Democrats, it's become a Republican haven.

Chuck Muth, head of the group Citizen Outreach, is the founder of a monthly gathering for conservatives at Stoney's called First Fridays.

Mr. CHUCK MUTH (President, Citizen Outreach): It's not really a political event. It's more of just a fun event of people who like politics.

JAFFE: Yeah, politics and half-price drinks. Muth says 500 people showed up at a recent First Friday when presidential candidate and former Godfather's Pizza chief Herman Cain was the guest. And Muth has invited all the other GOP hopefuls to stop by.

Mr. MUTH: I think it is going to be a must stop for a lot of the candidates this time around.

JAFFE: Last time around, Nevada didn't get a lot of love from most Republican presidential candidates. That was partly because the Republican caucuses were just a beauty contest. Also, most candidates rightly assumed the crown would go to Mitt Romney, in part because of his support from the state's large Mormon population.

But this time, Muth believes things could be different.

Mr. MUTH: They will award delegates to the winners on a proportional basis, so it won't even be winner take all. So there's a reason even for, you know, some of what would be considered maybe not the top-tier candidates to come, because they can still pick up a couple of delegates.

JAFFE: Meanwhile, about 400 miles northwest of Stoney's, there are real cowboys and cows and snowcapped mountains in Douglas County. Maggie Benz, the chair of the county Republican Party, says that four years ago Mitt Romney was the only candidate who came by the GOP office.

Ms. MAGGIE BENZ (Chair, Republican Party, Douglas County): When he came to our headquarters, it was like, wow. You know what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: It was almost too wow.

Ms. BENZ: There must have been 150 or 200 people, and that's big for us. In fact, I was afraid the floor was going to cave in.

JAFFE: So on the theory that if you build it, they will come, the Douglas County Republican Party just opened a new office in the town of Minden, more than twice the size of their old one. If a candidate shows up, they'll have room for a crowd.

And Benz says that GOP candidates should campaign in rural counties like hers, because in Nevada, that's where the Republicans are.

Ms. BENZ: Our county, for instance, is almost 2-to-1 Republican.

JAFFE: People really turn out to vote here.

Ms. BENZ: Yes, they do. In one of our most recent elections, we had, what, a 92 percent turnout? Yeah, it was pretty good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: About an hour's drive from Douglas County is Nevada's swing district, Washoe County and the city of Reno, where Republican Mayor Bob Cashell is serving his third term.

Unidentified Man: How are you doing, mayor?

Mayor BOB CASHELL (Republican, Reno, Nevada): Good. How are you doing?

Unidentified Man: Good. Good.

Mayor CASHELL: Good to see you.

JAFFE: Voters treat him like a neighbor, as he strolls through a park beside the rushing Truckee River.

When Barack Obama was running for the White House, he drew thousands of people to a rally right here, but Cashell says most Republican candidates have come to Reno just for fundraisers. Sometimes, they don't even leave the airport.

Mayor CASHELL: They'll be here for two or three hours or maybe half a day, but usually, they just touch and go.

JAFFE: But Cashell thinks they should spend a little more face time with Reno voters. One of the places he'd take them is a restaurant called Rapscallions.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, mayor.

Mayor CASHELL: How are you?

Unidentified Woman: Good.

JAFFE: It's not even noon, but the lunch crowd is already gathering.

Mayor CASHELL: Usually, there's five or six guys over at that corner of the bar that can buy and sell you and I and your company probably twice.

JAFFE: And what politician wouldn't want to meet guys like that? Developer Dale McKenzie tells the mayor that he wouldn't mind at all having his lunch interrupted by a little campaigning.

Mr. DALE McKENZIE: Especially a presidential candidate. That'd be fun.

Mayor CASHELL: It'll be a lot of fun, wouldn't it?

Mr. MCKENZIE: Yup.

JAFFE: In Iowa and New Hampshire, they have that kind of fun all the time. In Nevada, they're still dreaming of it.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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