LAS VEGAS — Nevada GOP leaders are standing firm on their mid-January caucus date while laughing off a call from four presidential candidates to boycott the state, saying it's a last-ditch effort from second-tier candidates who weren't expected to perform well.
"Oh, no, don't tell me Gary Johnson isn't coming, too," said David Buell, the GOP's state treasurer. He was referring to the former governor of New Mexico whose poll numbers are so low, he was excluded from last week's candidates debate. "They are trying to play for votes in New Hampshire and they know they don't have anything to lose in Nevada. I think most people look at it as laughable."
The call to persuade Nevada to push back its Jan. 14 caucus date began Wednesday, when New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner threatened to hold the first in the nation primary in early December to avoid shoehorning it between Iowa's caucuses, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 3, and Nevada's contest. Four Republican presidential contenders say they won't campaign in Nevada unless GOP officials change the caucus date. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the first candidate to say he wouldn't campaign in Nevada unless the date changes, also vowed to skip a GOP debate in Las Vegas next week.
GOP state chairwoman, Amy Tarkanian, told reporters that New Hampshire has the wrong target, urging the candidates to boycott Florida, which she says sent the presidential calendar in disarray. Florida Republican leaders decided to jump into the middle of the traditional early contest states and hold their primary on Jan. 31. Nevada followed by moving its original Feb. 18 date up more than a month.
A New Hampshire conservative group on Friday joined the boycott call, demanding that the candidates turn their backs on Nevada if the caucus date isn't changed.
"I agree with them that Florida started the ball rolling on all of this, but Nevada's unwillingness to budge now that push comes to shove is what's really going to cause all of this to collapse," said Jennifer Horn, founder of We The People in New Hampshire. "There has to be time between each of those contests for the candidate to get into that state. It is hurting the process because it is taking away the ability of the voters to vet and get to know the candidates."
Nevada GOP officials are standing firm.
"Any serious GOP contender has to understand that Nevada is a competitive battleground state," said David Gallagher, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party, noting that Nevada voted for former President George W. Bush twice and then President Barack Obama. "It's really to their detriment to snub the voters in Nevada."
Unclear is whether the boycott will succeed in rendering Nevada's contest irrelevant. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul plan to continue their months-long campaign efforts in Nevada, where they placed first and second, respectively, in 2008. Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently set up a campaign staff in Nevada and is also expected to compete here.
"Every candidate who has an organization here is still participating here," said Ryan Erwin, a Republican consultant in Las Vegas and senior adviser to Romney's Nevada effort. "Nevada is going to remain important. It is going to provide momentum for whoever wins."
The stakes are high for Nevada's state Republican party, which bungled its efforts to hold an early presidential contest in 2008 by drawing few voters and little attention nationally. GOP leaders are trying desperately to avoid the same disorganization this time around. They hired consultants with ties to the Republican National Committee to oversee the 2012 caucuses and Las Vegas will host two presidential debates, one next week and one in December.
"These guys are really boycotting the wrong date. If they want to look who started this they should look at Florida," Buell said. "Our contest is Jan. 14 and that's the way it is going to stay."