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Nevada moving away from GOP grasp on verge of Election Day
by Kathleen Hennessey - Associated Press
Nov 02, 2008 | 927 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
LAS VEGAS — Hundreds of volunteers are busily combing Nevada neighborhoods. Democrats have soared to a 100,000 voter registration advantage. Both presidential campaigns have spent millions of dollars.

But in the end, the number that matters most here may be 22.

That's Republican President Bush's approval rating in Nevada, a state he won twice, but a battleground that seems to be moving away from the man who would be his party's successor.

After months of being locked in a dead heat, polls show Republican John McCain slipping further behind Democrat Barack Obama in the Silver State. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday showed Obama with a 12-percentage point lead over McCain, the Democrat's widest lead yet. To make things worse for the Arizona senator, Democrats outpaced Republicans at the polls in early voting.

All indications are the shift is tied to increasing concerns about the faltering economy, an issue that plays in the Democrat's favor. Nevada's unemployment has hit a 23-year high. As many as one in 40 homes is in some stage of foreclosure.

But the remarkable fact that a Democrat appears teetering on victory in this once resolutely red state has deeper roots. Experts place it in a foundation of frustration with a resoundingly unpopular president and by extension, his party.

"It's a legacy, Bush's legacy. And John McCain is connected to the legacy, he can't run away from it," said Fred Lokken, a political science instructor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.

Nevadans began casting ballots on Oct. 18 and when they stopped Friday, more than half the electorate had weighed in, officials said. In Clark County, Democrats made up 51 percent of the early and absentee vote compared with Republicans' 32 percent. In the state's two urban counties, home to 85 percent of voters, Democrats had a nearly 90,000 voter advantage before the polls open at 7 a.m. on Election Day.

That means McCain must attract crossover Democrats and perform strongly with nonpartisan voters, who make up 15 of active registered voters. The AP-Gfk poll showed Obama with a solid advantage in that group.

The numbers are daunting, Republicans admit, although it may not be impossible to overcome with a stellar get-out-the-vote campaign in the final three days.

"We're going to need an almost a flawless 72-hour program," said Republican consultant Robert Uithoven. "We cannot win this race if our voters think their votes will not count on Nov. 4. The numbers are so slanted against us, we can't have the mentality set in that it's over."

It's hard to count Republicans out in Nevada. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn't won a majority of votes here since John Kennedy eked out a win in 1960. (Bill Clinton won the state twice, but only with help from Ross Perot drawing away GOP votes.) Two years ago, when the rest of the country saw a wave of Democratic victories, Republicans here swept the contested federal races and took the governor's office.

Much has changed since.

The Democratic party is reaping the benefits of two years of massive restructuring and rejuvenation led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The state's early slot on the Democrats' presidential primary calendar ensured a steady string of headlines about Democrats, visits from Democrats and volunteers for Democrats. The party's voter registration has soared.

Nowhere is the shift more apparent than Washoe County, centered around Reno. The seat of Republican politics in the state has long been a counterpoint to Democratic southern Nevada. The dynamic has forced Democrats into a strategy of having to amp up turnout and trying to win by large margins in the Las Vegas area as they tried to overcome assured losses in the Reno area and the rural counties.

Today Democrats have a 1,300 voter advantage over Republicans in Washoe.

Lokken calls the change "an earthquake occurrence." It's fueled in part by voters like Carol Bickley, a 21-year-old nurse's aide in Reno who recently registered as a Democrat and plans to vote for Obama.

"McCain reminds me of Bush and I just don't like Bush," she said. "And Bush has just not helped this country out at all."

The registration surge was bolstered by the work of ACORN, the embattled activist group whose shoddy registration practices are the subject of an FBI investigation. Nevada Republicans also are looking closely at ACORN registrations and monitoring for potential irregularities as the early vote data pours in. No lawsuits have been filed, though the threat is looming.

For now, the race is to be slugged out in the streets — and on the phones.

Obama volunteers and hordes of union allies are canvassing and phone banking in the final push to drive supporters to the polls. Scores of Californians, stuck in a state without a competitive race, have crossed the border to knock on doors.

An outspent McCain is aiming to stir up his base and pick off Democrats dissatisfied with their party's nominee. In the final stretch, his campaign is tapping networks of veterans, senior citizens, Mormons and other religious voters. It ran a massive canvass, as well as a blitz of surrogate visits and mail.

So far, the state party has taken the lead on the mail campaign that pushes hot-button issues. The fliers link Obama to former '60s radical William Ayers, call Obama "soft on crime" and criticize his support for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

"Barack Obama. Not who you think he is," is the mail campaign's tag line.

It's unclear whether the attempt to raise last-minute doubts about Obama will work in a state that has had more time than most to scope out the candidates.

For all but three months since April 2007, Obama has had an office open in Nevada. Three times he's visited Elko, a far-flung mining town in the heart of Republican territory.

He made his 20th visit to the state on Saturday, telling a Henderson crowd of 15,000 not to "let up for one minute" before Election Day. Michelle Obama is scheduled to campaign in North Las Vegas on Monday.

McCain has visited the state seven times, but largely let his surrogates make the connection with Nevada voters. Running mate Sarah Palin has made two recent visits, and is returning with McCain on Monday.

McCain's rally in Henderson will be his first in southern Nevada.
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