LAS VEGAS –- Near the foothills of the Spring Mountains, 20 minutes west of the Vegas strip, the shadow Republican party of Nevada is building out its command center in a shopping plaza on the edge of town.
Team Nevada, as it is known, took up residence three weeks ago in a sprawling, 6,000 square-foot office between Buzz BBQ ("$19.99 feeds two") and Queen's Nail & Spa ("Special Pedicure" for $18.99).
This is, apparently, what happens to the Republican Party establishment when Ron Paul supporters take over a state party, as they have here in the Silver State.
The question is, will Mitt Romney's chances in this battleground state -– which top Democrats here admit will be a tight race to the finish –- be hurt by the ongoing rift within the state between supporters of Paul, the Texas congressman and presidential candidate, and establishment Republicans?
If the margin between Romney and President Barack Obama is a few thousand votes, as the latest NBC/Marist poll of Nevada voters on Thursday showed, it may make a big difference, This is why the national GOP is trying to walk a fine line between moving past the intra-state discord and getting on with the business of maximizing turnout among Romney supporters, while provoking the fewest Paul supporters. They might, after all, need the Paul camp's support to win.
A white board on the wall inside one of Team Nevada's three call center rooms reads, in a blue marker scrawl, "Thing we need: microwave, snacks." About 10 staffers, split between the Republican National Committee and Romney's presidential campaign, are already there. More are coming next week.
The burgeoning political operation is similar to the Victory efforts set up by the Republican National Committee in battleground states around the country, with two major differences. It has a different name, and it is getting ground game funding directly from the RNC, rather than through the state GOP.
"That's an unsubstantiated rumor," said Jesse Law, a Paul-aligned activist who is poised to take a leadership spot within the state party under a new chairman who also supports Paul.
But Team Nevada officials confirmed that the RNC's money is indeed bypassing the state party. It's the result of a fight between Paul forces and old guard Republicans that has grown increasingly bitter. The rift has grown much worse than the last time the state party was taken over by activists, when supporters of Christian conservative Pat Robertson did so in the early-1980s.
"I don't remember that there was antagonism between the Robertson people and the mainstream GOP that we're seeing currently between the Ron Paul people and the so-called regulars. It was not as bitter or as severe in terms of the divide," said former Gov. Bob List, a Republican who lost his reelection bid in 1982. "If the Ron Paul people come alongside the Romney campaign, they'll bring energy and enthusiasm and new voters to the effort. If they don't, obviously, or if they sit on their hands, that's not a good thing," List said.
Some Republicans privately downplayed the size of the Paul contingent. And regardless, the GOP establishment is not waiting for them to get on board.
"Our method is we elect Republicans. That's what the party's for," said Dave Buell, chairman of the Washoe County GOP in the state's northwest corner, the second largest county in the state. "Down south, the Ron Paul people down there are pushing ideology rather than electing Republicans.
"There's room for both, but in the party the party's got to elect the people before you can push any ideology. They haven't learned that yet down there," Buell said.
Paul supporters have come to dominate the state GOP over the past few years, culminating in an almost total takeover at the state convention on May 5. They now control the executive boards for both the state party and for Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and is the largest county in the state. At the state convention the Paul contingent filled 22 of the state's 28 national convention delegate spots with Paul supporters.
That was alarming enough for the RNC and for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, which started officially working together in late April, after the party decided that Romney was the presumptive nominee. Team Nevada opened its offices on May 12. Then, on May 15, Paul backers in the Clark County GOP, the state's largest county, passed a resolution calling on RNC chairman Reince Priebus to resign for formalizing the RNC relationship with the Romney campaign.
The next day, reports surfaced that Team Nevada would be cutting the state party out of the loop entirely.
The last week or so has only solidified the RNC's resolve to move on and forget the Paul elements, particularly the appearance of a Clark County GOP official on a local TV show hosted by veteran journalist Jon Ralston.
Robert Tyree, the Clark County GOP executive board member, agreed with a previous comment by Carl Bunce, the Paul campaign's state director, that Romney is no different than Obama.
"I think that a lot of people in our movement certainly believe it and I think that there's a lot of the public at large who believes it," Tyree told Ralston.
Law, the Paul supporter who described himself as trying to mend fences between the establishment crowd and the Paul contingent, defended the new faces in the Nevada GOP against the charge that they are not loyal Republicans.
"The rag-tag group that they're describing? Not controlled by Ron Paul people," Law said. "It's controlled by people who are very interested in Republican success, working day and night to help our nominee Mitt Romney. It's a misunderstanding."
But the national party, and by extension the Romney campaign, has neither the time nor inclination for sorting the issue out, with just five months to go before election day.
On May 24, the chairman of the Clark County GOP and a number of other officials in the county GOP quit, with some going to work for Team Nevada.
Team Nevada spokesman Darren Littell was careful to offer an olive branch to the Paul contingent: "We're willing to work with anybody and everybody," he said.
But the attitude permeating the RNC/Romney effort is clear: get on board or get out of the way. It's time for political professionals to get after winning the election, they believe, and everything else is a distraction.
Democrats have watched the disarray with glee.
"They have problems here," said a well-placed Democratic strategist in the state, who is familiar with the Obama campaign's operation and who asked not to be named in order to speak more frankly. "What's fascinating is what you have is the presumptive nominee building an apparatus around the state party activists."
The Obama campaign, facing a heavy drag because of Nevada's intense economic woes, has taken solace because they have been on the ground working to identify and recruit potential voters for a year now. One block down from Team Nevada's headquarters, the Obama campaign opened its 10th field office in the state last week.
"It's going to be very difficult I think for them to try to recreate what we have on our side of the aisle in a short period of time," the Democrat said.
But Republicans say they have moved to cut out what they see as an organizational hurdle early enough that the rift within the state will be insignificant in November.
"It isn't behind schedule," said Rick Wiley, the RNC's political director. "Victory directors were hired in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in March, and in April for Nevada and other states."
Wiley said the RNC has been setting up initial battleground state field offices in May, with the "bulk" coming in June and July. In the Silver State, Team Nevada plans to open up seven field offices in the next two months, said spokesman Darren Littell.
RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said the RNC was also "running registration drives out there [in Nevada] this spring before we had offices open."
Littell acknowledged playing organizational catch-up to the Obama campaign, but said the campaign will close the gap.
"We're just getting going, so our numbers maybe aren't as impressive as some of the other campaigns. But now that we're up and going, call me back in a month and we'll be up there with everybody else," Littell said. "We don't have 10 offices because we don't have to do the sales job that President Obama's team has to do. They're running on a failed record."
Besides unemployment still close to 12 percent and the housing market at an all-time low, the clearest indication that Nevada will be much more competitive than most polls show is revealed by looking at voter turnout in the past two elections, and comparing those numbers to current voter registration statistics.
Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz) support was down by about 7,000 votes in 2008 from what Republican President George W. Bush got in 2004 when he beat Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) 418,690 to 397,190 in Nevada.
Obama, however, blew Kerry's number out of the water, and subsequently crushed McCain here four years ago. Obama got 531,884 votes -- 134,694 more than Kerry's total.
Clark County alone accounted for about 379,000 of Obama's votes.
But the economic downturn, in addition to hurting Obama politically with voters, has also reduced the Democratic incumbent's edge in voter registration. The housing bust and high unemployment rates have scattered Nevadans to other parts of the state and out of the state all together, shrinking the voter rolls. Among active voters, three times as many Democrats have been taken off the rolls as Republicans.
The number of active Democratic voters now stands at 433,096, compared with 531,317 in November 2008. Republicans are at 394,304, down from 430,594 four years ago.
The Democratic advantage, then, is down from 100,000 to about 40,000.
Democrats contended that they are working hard to find voters who moved or who became inactive, and noted that 30,000 inactive voters cast ballots in the 2010 midterms. And Democrats said they have registered 9,264 new voters to Republicans' 5,059 over the last three months.
All the more reason that Republicans are anxious to move past their intraparty feud with the Paul supporters and get down to business.
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