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With the South Carolina primary behind them, the Republican presidential candidates are now turning their attention towards Nevada. Caucuses will be held there tomorrow. Now, targeting conservative voters can be tricky there because of the state's changing economy and evolving identity, as NPR's Nathan Rott reports.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Lovelock, Nev., is rural Nevada. It's 2,400 people, two gas stations and one stop light kind of rural, where mining, ranching and farming are so ingrained in the day-to-day that the county courthouse here in town has wire hangers under the seats for folks to hand their cowboy hats. As such, the best time to catch locals is before they spread out to work across the high desert at a predawn breakfast a the Cowpoke Cafe, where the bacon and just about everything else is served with a big side of butter. Lovelock, like most towns in rural Nevada, is hugely conservative. The Cowpoke's patrons are no different. But that doesn't mean there's a consensus favorite here when it comes to the Republican candidates. For every John McMullen...
JOHN MCMULLEN: Oh, if I'm going to vote, I'll probably vote for Trump.
ROTT: ...There's a Christine Ballard.
CHRISTINE BALLARD: Donald Trump appeals to the lowest common denominator. He's a sexist blowhard.
ROTT: For every Ted Cruz supporter, there's someone who thinks he's all talk. And on and on it goes. So if you want consensus from folks here in Lovelock, don't ask about candidates but issues - one in particular.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Government's overreached their bounds.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There's too much government involvement.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The federal government - they own 85 percent of Nevada, and they want more. They want it all.
ROTT: The issue of public lands and the federal government's big presence in the state is a rallying cry for rural conservatives and a golden place to take aim if you're looking for their votes. But to date, Ted Cruz is the only candidate who's strongly championing the movement's big idea of returning federal lands to the states, with TV ads like this one.
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TED CRUZ: I will fight day and night to return full control of Nevada's lands to its rightful owners - its citizens.
ROTT: Other candidates have only passively supported the idea. Trump has even questioned it, which might seem puzzling. Why not take a strong stand on public lands and get that rural support - well because it might hurt as much as it helps. Nevada is not as rural as you might think. In the last census, 94 percent of the state's population lived in urban areas. And while that rural outlaw libertarian spirit still lives on in places like Las Vegas and Reno, it's not with near the same intensity.
ERIC HERZIK: You'll have plenty of people that want to shrink the size of government, but they don't necessarily go along with the rural agenda as well.
ROTT: Eric Herzik is the chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. What he means by the rural agenda is returning federal land to state control.
HERZIK: Because these more-pragmatic Republicans, I'll call them, say that means the state has to manage it and pay for that management.
ROTT: Herzik says that's the big challenge facing the Republican candidates in today's Nevada.
HERZIK: Can they create this broader coalition?
ROTT: Of urban and rural, new and old, without upsetting one side or the other. That's what they're trying to do in Washoe County, where outside of the county's Republican headquarters in Reno, a mud-covered diesel truck idles a few spots away from a Prius. This used to be a rural county. Now it's a more urban area, an industrial center.
ADAM KAHN: We have companies like Tesla and Switch that are coming here. We're starting to become more of a tech-startup place.
ROTT: Adam Kahn is the party's county chairman, and he's a good example of the type of Nevada voter that Republicans increasingly need to appeal to. He's conservative, young and urban. And even though the issues he's interested in aren't as much public lands as they are net neutrality and government surveillance, he says the theme is the same.
KAHN: You know, we're a state that we don't want to be told what to do by the government. We don't ever want to even have to deal with the government.
ROTT: Harnessing that sentiment in all of its forms is the challenge facing the candidates ahead of tomorrow's caucuses. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Reno, Nevada.
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