LAS VEGAS — This was supposed to be the Nevada GOP's year of redemption, a chance for Republicans to have a prominent role in picking a challenger for President Barack Obama four years after bungling its first attempt to turn the state into a major player in presidential politics.
But 2012 has not gone as planned. It's now anyone's guess as to how soon a Nevada victor will be declared after Saturday's caucuses.
Voting in all but one caucus — a special, late-evening one for Jewish voters in Clark County that is expected to draw fewer than 300 people — will end by 3 p.m. Pacific time. Most of Nevada's counties will be through with voting by noon.
But the state GOP doesn't plan to release any results until 5 p.m., which could raise questions about the validity of the count.
It also won't release results from Clark County, the state's most populous and home to more than half of all Republicans, until after 7 p.m.
The special caucus itself has the Mitt Romney and Ron Paul campaigns inquiring with the state party about the possibility of voter fraud. Nevada Republican officials have said they will ensure that no one votes twice. But concerns remain that the procedures and the delay in reporting the results will diminish the attention the contest receives from East Coast-based media outlets, given the three-hour time difference.
"We need to look like we know what we are doing," said David Buell, chair of the Washoe County GOP, who has called on party leaders to release the results as they trickle in.
The Nevada GOP last week announced a partnership with Twitter and Google in hopes of allowing the party to release results instantly on the Internet.
In contrast to this year's plans, the results of the 2008 caucuses were largely known before sunset.
The caucus count is just the latest bit of trouble for a GOP contest that has been plagued by a year of missteps and party turmoil, prompting Republicans here to lower expectations just as the contested nominating fight turns to Nevada.
Party officials say they expect no more than 60,000 voters — out of 468,000 registered Republicans in Nevada — to participate. That would be 16,000 more than the number that voted in 2008's non-binding contest. There are 28 delegates to this summer's Republican nominating convention at stake that will be awarded proportionally. Most of the candidates have largely ignored Nevada until now, after focusing hard on the four East Coast states that voted in January. Nevada will be in the spotlight for a mere four days.
All that means the impact of Saturday's outcome on the overall nomination fight could end up being minimal.
Romney, the overwhelming victor here four years ago in part because of the state's large Mormon population, headed to Nevada on Wednesday after a resounding win in Florida a day earlier and with a series of built-in advantages, including his Mormon faith, a strong get-out-the-vote operation and a head start in TV advertising. He has secured endorsements from most of the state's top GOP leaders. He has visited the state more than most.
But he faces fierce competition from Paul, the Texas congressman who came in second in Nevada in 2008. Paul has an existing network of support from that race and has been working to reinforce that organization. His anti-government, anti-tax and anti-spending message also may appeal to Nevada's tea party contingent and libertarian voters wary of federal involvement in local schools and land decisions.
Both Romney and Paul have been building strong ground games in Reno and Las Vegas, the state's northern and southern urban centers.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, bloody after losing Florida, also is competing, as is the cash-strapped former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. They only recently established campaign operations after threatening to boycott Nevada for briefly daring to hold its contest close to the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10. Both are wooing tea party backers. Gingrich also has backing from casino owner Sheldon Adelson, a high-profile billionaire businessman in Las Vegas.
"When he says, 'I'm supporting Newt Gingrich,' people say, 'I'm supporting him, too, if you are,'" said George Harris, owner of a downtown Las Vegas Mexican restaurant where Gingrich has scheduled a round-table with Hispanics on Thursday.
The economy is voters' top concern.
"Look, drive around this town, see all the places that are vacant," said Tom Nay, a 68-year-old, self-employed Romney supporter in Las Vegas. "People are not working."
The state's unemployment rate, 12.6 percent, is the nation's highest. Its largest casinos suffered a combined net loss of nearly $4 billion in 2011, the third straight year of losses. In all, more than 166,300 people were out of work and one in every 177 homes was in foreclosure in December, also the highest rate in the nation. Immigration and tourism are also top issues in the state.
Four years ago, Nevada Republicans scheduled their presidential nominating contest early in the election season in hopes that the state would have a major say in picking the nominee. But few candidates competed here, and Romney easily won.Comment on this story
This time, the state GOP fought to be among the first four states to vote. But it ended up bowing to other states and twice moved its caucus date.
Two weeks ago, Clark County Republicans announced a special contest to accommodate religious voters who celebrate the Saturday Sabbath. They said the last-minute change was being made at the request of Adelson, the Jewish political activist who, along with his wife, has given $10 million to an independent organization backing Gingrich. Adelson's spokesman has denied the claim.