LAS VEGAS —The Republican presidential caucuses here Tuesday night are Donald Trump’s to lose. He has led every recent public poll by double digits. Enormous crowds pack his rallies. And his nationalist call to deport illegal immigrants and wall them off has resonated with Nevada’s working-class whites resentful of the booming Latino population.
Marveling over his polling lead here, Trump joked a few weeks ago, “Maybe I don’t even have to go there and campaign.”
But a Trump win is no done deal. The state’s caucuses are peculiar and unpredictable – and rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are laboring to spring a surprise on the billionaire mogul.
Unlike in New Hampshire and South Carolina, which had big primaries, voters in Nevada only have a four-hour window to caucus at select locations. And unlike in Iowa, which held the first caucuses on Feb. 1, there is no time-honored tradition of caucusing here.
In 2012, when Mitt Romney won Nevada with 50 percent, just 32,894 Republicans caucused, roughly eight percent of the overall GOP electorate.
Both Cruz and Rubio are eager to claim momentum heading into next week’s delegate bonanza known as “Super Tuesday.” If the two senators can mobilize their supporters – just 20,000 voters could be enough for a landslide, operatives here say – then a win is within reach.
Both campaigns have carefully tailored strategies to exploit what they think is a weak ground game that makes Trump vulnerable.
Rubio is targeting Nevada’s well-organized Mormon community, which propelled Romney to victory, as well as seniors who populate the many retirement communities around Las Vegas.
Rubio also is playing up his local roots. He lived briefly as a child in Las Vegas, where his father tended bar at a casino and his mother cleaned rooms at a hotel. During that time, his family also temporarily converted to Mormonism.
Dozens of extended family members still live here. “He has more family members in Nevada than in Florida,” Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, Rubio’s state campaign chairman, said Sunday night at a rally in North Las Vegas.
Cruz, meanwhile, is trying to unite evangelical Christians as well as the self-described liberty voters and constitutional conservatives who made up then-Texas congressman Ron Paul’s coalition in 2012.
Of the top three candidates, Cruz has the most intense travel schedule in the closing days – especially in rural areas, where he is seizing on a land-use controversy that has been boiling here since rancher Cliven Bundy engaged federal officials in a 2014 armed stand-off.
The federal government controls roughly 85 percent of land in the state, but Cruz vows to turn that power over to the state and private ranchers. He works the Bureau of Land Management into his litany of federal agencies that need to be clipped or abolished. In a just-for-Nevada TV ad, he promises to return “Nevada land” claimed by Washington.
“Eighty-five percent of Nevada is owned by the federal government,” Cruz said before his first post-South Carolina campaign stop, in the libertarian-friendly city of Pahrump. “That makes no sense. That’s ridiculous. That’s an issue on which Donald Trump and I disagree. He says the federal government should continue to own all that land. I think we should send it back to the people.”
Trump has focused on big rallies in Las Vegas and the Reno area – the two main population centers – but he has a ground organization as well. His state director, Charles Munoz, cut his teeth with Americans for Prosperity, the political activist group funded by the industrial billionaire Koch brothers. Just 26 years old when he was hired in August, Munoz has never run a campaign before and rarely speaks to the press.
Trump’s campaign has bought limited television advertising time in Las Vegas. In its main spot, which also ran in South Carolina, a man whose son was murdered by an undocumented immigrant says that Trump is “the only one” he trusts to secure the border.
Running Cruz’s campaign is Robert Uithoven, who has assigned chairs in all 17 counties and secured the endorsement of Attorney General Adam Laxalt, Uithoven’s latest successful client.
On Sunday night, Cruz held his biggest rally of the Nevada campaign so far, hosted by the super PAC Keep the Promise and co-headlined by Glenn Beck. More than 1,400 people were ticketed for the event in Henderson. Some wore T-shirts they’d made for their local Cruz organizations, like the “Las Vegas Cruz-aders” that Diane Burnett, 62, had been walking precincts with.
“I held my nose and caucused for Romney last time,” said Burnett. “I’ll never hold my nose again.”
Before the big event, the crowd heard Mormon entertainer David Osmond – of the famous Osmond family – sing patriotic songs. When Beck mentioned that he was Mormon, too, a roar of approval seemed to knock him back.
“Wow!” laughed Beck. “That’s not what happens when I say that down South.”
When Cruz took the stage for a 30-minute version of his stump speech, his backdrop was a poster portraying Nevada mountains and some scrubby trees under the slogan, “RETURN OUR LAND.”
Rubio is campaigning across Nevada with a broader message, trying to appeal to a more diverse cross-section of the electorate. Many of the state’s top elected officials are backing him; Sen. Dean Heller joined the Rubio team on Sunday, though Gov. Brian Sandoval has decided to stay on the sidelines.
Rubio also is attracting some star power. Donnie Wahlberg, a founding member of New Kids on the Block, a boy band popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, endorsed him at his Sunday night rally.
“I have never, ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate – that is, until this year, thanks to Marco Rubio,” Wahlberg said.
Rubio also has the support of Rick Harrison, a celebrated Las Vegas pawn shop owner and host of the “Pawn Stars” reality television show. “I really think he’s got a shot at winning on Tuesday,” Harrison told the Sunday night crowd.
Hutchison agreed, saying an upset was possible if the Rubio team can get its supporters to the caucuses.
“We’ve got one of the best ground games, that has put Brian Sandoval in the governor’s mansion, Dean Heller in the U.S. Senate, me in the lieutenant governor’s office,” Hutchison said. “We know how to win statewide. And if we get our people out, we’re going to do great. If we don’t get our people out, we’re not going to do so great.”