Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) greets supporters in Colorado. He's got a… (Bryan Oller, Associated…)
Reporting from Las Vegas — The Moonlite BunnyRanch was in an uproar.
Most of the women at the brothel outside Carson City had backed President Obama in his 2008 run for the White House. Their support had already begun to waver when, just before Thanksgiving, he signed a bill that allows for the human consumption of horse meat.
That's a deal breaker for the animal-loving prostitutes of rural Lyon County, where herds of wild horses regularly roam. Now they're raising money for Ron Paul, the 76-year-old Texas congressman who will celebrate his 55th wedding anniversary Wednesday while campaigning for Saturday's Nevada caucuses.
The legislation "gets me really upset. It's horrible. Horses are our friends," said Cami Parker, 25, who says she puts 10% of her earnings each week into the Paul donation box in the brothel parlor. Now, "most of us girls are pimpin' for Paul because of his stands on states' rights and individual rights."
Never mind that the 12-term congressman is the only candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who has yet to win a contest — or even come close.
Few states are a better fit than Nevada for the independent-minded candidate's libertarian leanings. No matchup is a clearer window into Silver State politics than Paul versus Mitt Romney, insurgent versus establishment, grass roots versus big money. And it's hard to find voters who are more loyal than the staunch men and women whom one political scientist here calls the "Paulists."
Just ask Parker. Or Dr. Mark Carducci, 54, who has spent $60,000 to support a Paul billboard on Interstate 215 for the last 18 months. Or Robert Fellner, 27, a professional online poker player who raised nearly $3,000 in three days to put up yet another Paul billboard in Las Vegas' tatty arts district.
"Let's face it, we're built on gambling. The bars never close. We have legalized prostitution. We're not a big-government state. Income tax is constitutionally prohibited," said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. "Romney's private-sector experience and the fact that he makes a lot of money will not hurt him in Nevada. … But Ron Paul has a kind of built-in base here."
Romney has a base here too, and in 2008 it helped him win the Nevada caucuses with 51% of the vote. Paul came in second; although he won only 14% of the vote, he outpolled better-known opponents John McCain, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Fred Thompson.
A statewide poll taken in December pegs the race as Romney, Newt Gingrich, Paul. But many here argue that the caucuses are difficult to predict. Senior Romney advisor Ryan Erwin said one poll taken five days before the 2008 caucuses had Romney placing fourth.
"Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are always going to outperform polling because of the strength of their organizations," Erwin said. "The Paul organization is strong. You'll witness that on Saturday. We like to think ours is just as strong or stronger."
Nevada is the first state on the GOP calendar where Romney's faith will be a plus.
Evangelical voters in South Carolina rejected the devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. But Nevada was settled by Mormons and has a higher percentage of LDS members — 11% — than any state but Utah and Idaho, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Ninety percent of the Mormons who caucused in 2008 supported Romney.
Erwin downplays the former Massachusetts governor's LDS support. Sure, the campaign has "a lot of Mormon supporters and volunteers," he said, but "four years ago, we had enough self-identified Catholics to win the caucuses" — even without the Mormon votes.
Romney's business background and focus on the economy are what resonate here, Erwin said, and are why "the lieutenant governor, both Republican members of Congress and eight of 10 Republican state senators have endorsed him."
Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and its real estate market remains moribund.
Romney's fiscal acumen won over Nannette Fisher, who attended a caucus training session at the candidate's headquarters here Saturday. Fisher ran an in-home child care center until her house was foreclosed on in 2010.
"I lost my job when I lost my home," Fisher said. In Massachusetts, Romney "got people back to work, got the economy back. … He did it there. He can do it for the country."
But Fisher's enthusiasm pales beside that of Paulists like Carducci and Fellner. Along with Paul's longtime organization and deep grass-roots support here, that fervor is what makes the anti-tax, antiwar, pro-Constitution Paul a wild card.
Fisher said she supported Romney because "I think he's a great candidate." Fellner argued that "being exposed to Ron Paul changed my life." And Carducci? "I don't see how the country will survive without Ron Paul," he said. "It's either him or a further decline into tyranny."
Carducci is riffling through a manila folder filled with receipts when his eyes widen behind Bono-inspired glasses. The Nevada caucuses are getting close, and the home-schooling father of four has just toted up how much he has spent to keep a Ron Paul billboard on the highway.
"I never said, 'Hey, I'm going to spend $60,000 for Ron Paul,' " Carducci said. It just kind of happened that way.
His two Toyota Land Cruisers are lousy with Paul placards. There's a Ron Paul bumper sticker on his mountain bike, and a big placard across the front of his house. The last four digits of his cellphone number are 7285. Want to guess what that spells?
"I tried to get R-O-N P-A-U-L," he said, "but I couldn't get the R-O-N."
The first Carducci billboard went up before Paul had even announced his bid. "Ron Paul 2012" was its simple slogan. Each time Carducci changes the message, it costs $1,150.
But every penny is worth it, he said: "I'd give my left arm for the guy."