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Las Vegas Special Caucus, Marred By Confusion, Gives Ron Paul Win

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LAS VEGAS CAUCUS
A caucus participant hands an extra ballot back to a caucus chairman during a Republican caucus meeting, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) | AP

LAS VEGAS -- Angry Ron Paul supporters overtook a special caucus Saturday night for religious voters who honor the Sabbath, prompting long lines, frantic GOP officials and voter fraud complaints.

The Las Vegas caucus was supposed to start hours after the rest of the state concluded its Republican presidential caucuses. But party officials were still frantically trying to sign in voters an hour after it was scheduled to start, further delaying election results from Nevada's most populous county.

Part of the trouble was some Paul supporters told voters they could show up for the late-night caucus at a suburban Jewish private school for whatever reason. But voters could only participate if they signed a declaration affirming that they couldn't vote during the regular morning caucuses because of their faith.

Most supporters signed the declaration without hesitation, after confirming to an Associated Press reporter that they had missed the earlier caucuses for other reasons.

Stay-at-home mother Cindy Koogler, 33, said she tried to vote in the morning, but was turned away after arriving an hour late because she was caring for her young son. A Paul supporter told her about the Saturday night caucus.

"When you have a kid and he's in the middle of potty-training, you can't take him with you," she said of the morning vote.

Koogler said she signed the declaration saying she was a religious voter and was not questioned.

But one Paul supporter refused to go along with the ruse, saying Republican leaders were encouraging voters to perjure themselves and refusing to move from the head of the line as Jewish rabbis, families with young children and elderly voters patiently waited in line behind him to be allowed into the caucus location.

"People are lying as they are walking in," the protester, high school teacher Stephen Melancon, yelled at organizers. "You are setting them up to lie."

Clark County GOP chair David Gibbs said he wasn't sure how officials would address the voters who weren't actually there because of the Sabbath, adding that it was up to each person to tell the truth.

"They have to make that decision for themselves when they sign it," Gibbs said.

The Paul surge paid off. He won the special caucus with 183 votes. Romney came in second with 61, Gingrich had 57 and Santorum had 16 votes.

The unprecedented contest for religious voters who observe Saturday as a holy day was intended as a sign of inclusivity as Republicans court Jewish voters ahead of the November general election. But it also added to various delays in the release of the election results in Clark County, where most Nevada Republicans live, because local GOP officials refused to provide vote tallies until all ballots had been cast.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that the school was founded by and named after casino titan and Jewish activist Sheldon Adelson, who has prolonged Newt Gingrich's struggling campaign by pumping $10 million into a pro-Gingrich super PAC. GOP officials said Adelson came up with the idea for the special caucus last month, but he denied it.

Adelson, who is not an orthodox Jew, sat at the front of the school auditorium where the vote was held with his wife, only days after his spokesman told reporters they would not attend the caucus because the couple could vote in the morning.

To fight off accusations of foul play, party officials asked voters to sign the declaration and essentially promise there would be no funny business. Campaign operatives for Mitt Romney and Paul had expressed concern in recent weeks that the alternative caucus would allow people to manipulate the election results by voting twice.

After the ballots were turned in, about hundred voters stayed and watched as Gibbs counted and added up the results. Many of them were Paul supporters, and they cheered each time his name was called indicating that he had won a vote.

A separate vote for religious voters is largely unheard of, but that's likely because many states provide alternative ballots for voters who can't make it on the official Election Day. For example, South Carolina also held its presidential nominating contest last month on a Saturday, but the state-run primary election allowed for absentee voting.

In Nevada, the caucuses are organized and overseen by party officials, not the government. Saturday morning was the only opportunity most Republicans had to cast ballots. Democrats in Nevada held their caucuses Jan. 21.

There are roughly 74,000 Nevadans who identify as Jewish, or 2.8 percent of the state, according to 2010 Census data. It's unclear how many of those people identify as Republican or observe the Sabbath.

The caucus served somewhat as a welcome party to Jewish voters ahead of the November general election. In recent months, Republicans have stressed that Jewish voters are unhappy with President Barack Obama's stance on Israel and the Middle East, and the GOP is eager to use that dissonance to attract new voters to their ticket.

Jewish voters, long considered a safe Democratic voting bloc, are increasingly leaning Republican, according to an analysis released this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It found that Jewish voters favored Democrats by a 36-point margin in 2011, compared with a 52-point margin in 2008.

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