LAS VEGAS — Nevada Republicans are gambling that they can turn this swing state best known for showgirls and cowboys into a major player in picking the party's presidential nominee.
After Iowa and New Hampshire get their turns, Nevada hopes to draw all the GOP hopefuls to its caucuses — and do better than the flop of 2008 when party infighting and inexperience with the caucuses turned the contest into an afterthought.
Mitt Romney won three years ago, thanks to the state's significant number of Mormon voters and the absence of many of his rivals. Most GOP candidates skipped Nevada to focus instead on South Carolina.
Nevada Republicans are determined to make the Feb. 18, 2012, caucuses an event not to be missed, and they're already seeing their share of likely candidates almost a full year before the voting.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour courted the state's top Republicans and talked to donors this week. Romney will address the Republican Jewish Coalition Winter Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas on April 2. Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin have traveled to the state for fundraising dinners and private meetings.
"Our state is beginning to pick up some traction," said former Nevada Gov. Robert List, a Republican National Committee representative. "It's been a little slow to build because Nevada is relatively new to this role as an early state. We are learning the ropes as we go forward here."
Nevada Republicans plan to host a series of mock caucuses, train volunteers about how to hold a caucus and teach voters the intricacies of participating in the process. Party leaders also are seeking advice from experts in Iowa, which for years has held the leadoff caucuses. And the GOP is stepping up fundraising to ensure that it has enough money to rent venues for the voting sessions.
Caucuses typically are all-day meetings in which activists gather to talk, horse trade and finally choose a slate of delegates for a candidate. Nevada caucus-goers meet in libraries, gyms and sometimes casinos and hotels on the strip.
"We will see a better infrastructure in place in 2012 in the Republican Party to drive more people to the caucus," said Rep. Joe Heck, who represents southern Nevada.
There's plenty of room for improvement. In 2008, Republicans drew only 44,000 voters at 113 precincts at a cost of about $400,000. By comparison, Democrats — with the help of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — staged a highly organized contest in which Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton competed fiercely. More than 116,000 Nevada Democrats showed up at 520 precinct locations at a cost of $2 million.
Adding a degree of uncertainty is the primary calendar. Florida, Michigan and Minnesota are threatening to move up their contests, which would leave Nevada out in the cold. For now, the state's Republicans are proceeding as if they will get to keep the plum No. 3 spot on the political calendar.
It could be a high-stakes role for Nevada, the first Western state in the primary process. Depending on the outcome in Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada could give momentum to a candidate or further complicate the race.
Still, the GOP has a few hurdles to pulling off a marquee event.
"They don't know what they are doing because they have never done it before," said Heidi Smith, also an RNC representative.
And the tea party's emergence has exacerbated fissures in the state GOP. The divisions were on full display last year when the GOP nominated Sharron Angle over the establishment candidate to challenge the endangered Reid. He won and is back in the Senate. Angle is running for a House seat, giving the tea party a prominent voice in the state.
Tea party backers are eager for Republicans to embrace a strong conservative fiscal and social agenda that could hurt candidates seeking support from the state's growing Hispanic population or its hundreds of unemployed workers. Nevada has the highest jobless rate in the nation at 13.6 percent.
State GOP chairman Mark Amodei also is weighing a congressional run, and the possible race to replace him could fuel internal strife.Comment on this story
The Nevada GOP has been in disarray for years. Republican Jim Gibbons, the state's governor until last fall, faced a series of scandals while in office, and Sen. John Ensign won't seek another term, dogged by ethics allegations.
Republicans do see signs of hope. Clark County GOP Chairman Frank Ricotta said his local party, which includes Las Vegas, has grown from 200 to 900 members since 2008.
"Things are exponentially building," he said.
And the GOP is encouraged by potential candidates like Barbour, who said this week, "If I run, I will compete to win Nevada in the caucus and win Nevada in the general election."