LAS VEGAS — The fate of Nevada's presidential nomination caucuses has fallen into chaos just as the national spotlight has turned on the state.
Mounting calls for Nevada to delay its Jan 14 contest remained far from decided as the Republican candidates descended on Las Vegas Tuesday for a rare western state debate.
State Republican leaders voted earlier this month to move up their contest by five weeks, a change that wreaked havoc on the Republican primary race and prompted New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner to threaten to hold that state's historic presidential contest during the December holiday season. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, businessman Herman Cain and three other presidential candidates consequently launched a boycott against Nevada, with Huntsman going so far as to skip the GOP debate in Las Vegas Tuesday night.
The Nevada GOP will put the matter to vote on Saturday, when more than 200 rank-and-file members are scheduled to debate the caucus date at a central committee meeting in Las Vegas. GOP leaders aren't sure how the ultraconservative, unruly group will vote.
Some members want the date moved to Jan. 17 to make New Hampshire happy. Others want to move the contest to Feb. 4 to comply with national committee rules and avoid losing any delegates during the national Republican convention in Tampa next year. Other Nevada Republicans have laughed off the boycott from the lesser known candidates and support the Jan. 14 date.
"I'm OK with Jan. 14 as long as the Republican National Committee doesn't penalize us," said Lori Piotrowski, a Las Vegas activist who will cast her vote Saturday. "I definitely would want that in writing from them to make sure that doesn't happen."
Nevada GOP leaders have defended their new caucus date since moving it from Feb. 18 earlier this month, but the party's foot soldiers have voted against the executive board's recommendations in the past, and their varied demands make for an unpredictable outcome.
Heidi Smith, a GOP national committeewoman from northern Nevada who voted against the Jan. 14 date, said Republican leaders in New Hampshire have frantically been calling her to discuss a compromise.
"No one can say what's going to happen Saturday," Smith said.
The calendar scramble began after Florida skipped ahead of the four early contest states and set its primary for Jan. 31. Nevada and Iowa followed without consulting New Hampshire, leaving that state without a date to hold its historic contest.
The confusion is driven by a New Hampshire provision that directs Gardner to hold the primary at least seven days before a similar contest. Nevada officials claim Gardner has misinterpreted the law by comparing Nevada's sprawling caucuses organized by the state political parties to the primary New Hampshire state officials hold.
A December start to the presidential contests is unprecedented, and critics fear the move would shorten the time voters have to scrutinize the candidates. The Republican National Committee had hoped to hold off the presidential contests until early February.
Iowa, which has avoided the ire of New Hampshire's political leaders, is not budging.
"Iowa is Jan. 3, and I do not anticipate the date changing," Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said Tuesday.
Nevada Democrats urged their Republican counterparts to stand firm Tuesday and announced they would also move their caucus date up a month to Jan. 14.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the state's senior senator and de factor Democratic leader, lobbied for Nevada's third in the nation contest in 2008 and is worried Republicans will back down and give away Nevada's coveted early vote. Reid wants to protect Nevada's position in the presidential nomination calendar for the 2016 elections, when Democrats hope to elect a successor to President Barack Obama.
"After working so hard to ensure our state plays a key role in presidential elections, I hope today's announcement will strengthen the resolve of those under pressure to place that status in jeopardy," Reid said in a statement.
Obama is expected to easily win the Nevada caucuses that party leaders hope will mobilize activists to replicate their massive 2008 turnout next
"We worked too hard to secure Nevada's early-state status to allow Florida to take that away from us," Nevada Democratic Chairwoman Roberta Lange said in a statement. "Therefore, we are joining the fight to ensure Nevada is one of the first three early voting states."