Democrats, GOP Battle Over Nevada Swing County Washoe County, Nev., is a swing county in a swing state, one that both parties see as pivotal to winning Nevada. Traditionally a Republican county, over the past year Democrats have made significant inroads there. But the McCain campaign has built strong ground operations as well.
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Democrats, GOP Battle Over Nevada Swing County

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Democrats, GOP Battle Over Nevada Swing County

Democrats, GOP Battle Over Nevada Swing County

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris. Forty-six days until the presidential election, just under seven weeks, which means both campaigns are kicking into their final stretch and most of those efforts are playing out in states that could swing either way. This week, my co-host, Melissa Block, has been checking out the ground operations in a hotly contested county in the hotly contested state of Nevada.

MELISSA BLOCK: Nevada is a battleground state, a tossup in the polls. Both the McCain and Obama campaigns are spending a lot of time and money here. Now, narrow that focus down to Washoe County in the north, home of Reno. It's considered pivotal in the Nevada strategy. And then zoom in on one room in a largely abandoned strip mall. Its walls are painted Republican red, and handwritten in white paint on one wall is this message, "The race for president in Nevada will be won or lost in this room."

Unidentified Republican Campaign Worker: First question is, are you planning to vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin this November? Yes, no, or undecided? Yes? OK.

BLOCK: The Republicans have set up an impressive phone bank. Thirty volunteers punch the voters' answers right into the keypad for instant data entry. They're targeting undecideds, independents, soft Democrats, and Hillary Clinton supporters, fine tuning their database of likely McCain voters.

Unidentified Republican Campaign Worker: The next question is, is would you say your support is strong, weak, or average? Strong? Okey-doke. Next question...

Ms. SIAMARA RODRIGUEZ(ph) (Obama Volunteer): (Spanish spoken)

BLOCK: Not far away, outside the King Ranch Supermarket, Obama volunteer Siamara Rodriguez is trolling for new voters.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: 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.

BLOCK: This is a largely Latino neighborhood of Reno. The Obama campaign is counting on strong Hispanic turnout. After a long unsuccessful time in the broiling sun, Rodriguez reels in 19-year-old Vilma Castro(ph) and registers her on the spot.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Did you see? Didn't take more than five minutes. Was I lying?

Ms. VILMA CASTRO: That was fast.

BLOCK: Nevada is a bellwether state. It's voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1912, with the exception of 1976. Democrats are hungry for Nevada this year. Terrence Tolbert is the state director for the Obama campaign. He looks at the close results from 2004 and sees a golden opportunity in The Silver State.

Mr. TERRENCE TOLBERT (Nevada State Director, Obama Campaign): Four years ago, the state was lost by 2.5 percent, or a little under 22,000 votes. That's a small number in comparison to some other states. Voter registration, at this moment, is 70,000 plus for Democrats, whereas four years ago there was a deficit. If we had had these kind of numbers four years ago or eight years ago, Nevada would have been blue. I've said this before, and I'll say it repeatedly from now until Election Day is over, we will leave no stone unturned.

Lieutenant Governor BRIAN KROLICKI (Lt. Gov. of Nevada, McCain Campaign Chair for Nevada): Would I like to have more registered Republicans? Of course.

BLOCK: That's the McCain campaign chair for Nevada, Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki, who says the Republicans know what they need to do to ensure victory.

Lt. Gov. KROLICKI: It's certainly the grassroots game, the machinery of getting out the vote. 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.

BLOCK: The Republican victory formula goes something like this. They have to keep the margin close in Clark County. That's Las Vegas, where the vast majority of voters live and where Democrats have a large edge. Republicans have to win here in Washoe County, which tilts their way, and rack up the vote in rural areas, known as the cow counties. But the Democrats have ideas of their own.

(Soundbite of Democratic campaign rally in Elko, Nevada)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Presidential Nominee): I think I'm an honoree Elkonian.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

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

(Soundbite of Democratic campaign rally in Elko, Nevada)

Senator OBAMA: There's a reason we keep coming to Elko. You know, because in the past, presidential candidates don'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.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

BLOCK: Three hundred miles away, here in Washoe County, the Democrats have successfully narrowed the Republican lead among registered voters. One way they're doing that is by shoring up the youth vote. Campaign volunteers are out every day at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Unidentified Campaign Volunteer #1: Are you registered to vote in Washoe County?

Unidentified Man #1: I am.

Unidentified Campaign Volunteer #1: Awesome.

(Soundbite of song "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours")

Mr. STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) 0oh, baby, here I am, signed, sealed, delivered. I'm yours.

Unidentified Democratic Campaign Volunteer: Oh, you're registered. Awesome.

BLOCK: The Obama table offers up Stevie Wonder and sweetens the deal with plates of muffins and brownies. A few feet away, the McCain team has none of that, but it does have its own energized volunteers.

Unidentified Republican Campaign Volunteer: Students for McCain. Yeah!

BLOCK: Freshman volunteer Nicole O'Dell(ph) chats up a newly registered Republican.

Ms. NICOLE O'DELL (Republican Campaign Volunteer): We got to go see Sarah Palin. We had to volunteer, of course, but we did. It was a lot of fun.

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

(Soundbite of Republican campaign rally in Nevada)

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; Republican Vice Presidential Nominee): 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.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

Governor PALIN: 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.

Ms. HEIDI GANSERT (Leader, Nevada Republican Assembly): She seems very sincere. She seems accessible.

BLOCK: Heidi Gansert is the Republican leader in the Nevada Assembly. Republicans have seen a surge in volunteers since Palin joined the ticket.

Ms. GANSERT: I think they are identifying with her, and they are identifying with her family. 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.

BLOCK: Can Sarah Palin bring women who supported Hillary Clinton over to the Republican side? Democrat Kate Marshall doubts that. She's the Nevada state treasurer. She chaired northern Nevada for Clinton during the caucuses. Now, she's working for Obama.

Is part of your mission now getting Hillary Clinton's supporters excited and energized?

Ms. KATE MARSHALL (Nevada State Treasurer): I had been doing that. I don't need to do that anymore. Sarah Palin has done that for me.

BLOCK: What do you mean by that?

Ms. MARSHALL: She's kind of energized the base of both parties, if you will. She strikes me as a fun person, a good person, a person who's trying really hard. But you got to be kidding. President?

BLOCK: She's not running for president. She's running for vice president, of course.

Ms. MARSHALL: I hope it's only vice president. I'd hate to see her have to answer the calls.

Unidentified Woman: I'm sorry. I just couldn't get the dog out.

Ms. JANET WEBBER(ph) (Obama Campaign Precinct Captain, Reno): No problem. Hi, CJ.

Unidentified Woman: Sorry.

BLOCK: We're making the rounds with Obama precinct captain Janet Webber in one of Reno's wealthiest neighborhoods, up on a ridge on the edge of the city.

Ms. WEBBER: You just get home, and here we are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Webber is trying to win over converts in her overwhelmingly Republican precinct. And she's come to visit the Nobles(ph), Mark(ph) and Mary Kay(ph). They're both Republicans, but they're undecided right now. Mary Kay says she's leaning toward Obama.

Ms. MARY KAY NOBLE (Undecided Voter, Reno): And there's issues with Palin that concern me.

Ms. WEBBER: What's that?

Ms. NOBLE: She's so pro-life. She doesn't even bend when it is rape or incest. And I don't agree with that.

BLOCK: While Janet Webber works to turn Republican hearts and minds to Obama in her precinct, the McCain team is counting on its own precinct captains. At Reno headquarters, Gwen Lindi(ph) gives the marching orders.

Ms. GWEN LINDI (McCain Campaign Precinct Captain, Reno): Neighbor-to-neighbor contact is absolutely the most important work in this campaign. It's the way we're going to win this election. And 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. It's as simple as that. So, questions? Let's go get them.

BLOCK: Nevada starts two weeks of early voting on October 18 in supermarkets, shopping malls, 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 all their energies on getting their remaining core supporters to the polls. I'm Melissa Block in Reno.

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