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For GOP candidates in Nevada, stumping is a high-stakes gamble

In anything-goes Nevada, the Republican presidential candidates must tread a fine line between voters and vice.

February 03, 2012|By Michael J. Mishak and Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Newt Gingrich supporters listen to their candidate at Stoneys Rockin Country bar in Las Vegas, where the night before the attraction was bikini bull-riding. For a presidential candidate, Nevada is a veritable minefield.
Newt Gingrich supporters listen to their candidate at Stoneys Rockin Country… (Evan Vucci, Associated…)

Reporting from Las Vegas — This is not a place of farmhouses, mom-and-pop diners, chitchats with voters over apple pie. This is a place of neon signs, abandoned homes, billboards promising quick vasectomies and slot machines shouting: Wheel! Of! Fortune!

Nevada is a landscape unlike any the Republican presidential field has seen. A few days of mad-dash campaigning in advance of Saturday's caucuses presented the four candidates with an uncomfortable choice: Do you let the Vegas in?

Most tried to keep it out. And failed.

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Rick Santorum had to answer questions about a sex scandal that had nothing to do with Herman Cain. Mitt Romney said he wasn't much for gambling, but still snagged the Strip's gaudiest endorsee: Donald Trump. Ron Paul embraced Nevada's live-and-let-live ethos, rallying the ladies of the Moonlite BunnyRanch. And Newt Gingrich made a last-minute tip of the hat to the West's first caucus by speaking at a bar known for bikini bull-riding.

Perhaps Gingrich had succumbed to the lure of Nevada a few days earlier in Reno, when his microphone died at a local brewery. "It's all right," a man shouted from the back of the room. "We're all drunk."

For a presidential hopeful, the state is a veritable minefield. Does he voice support for legalizing online poker? Campaign near a half-finished housing development? Accept the endorsement of a man who calls himself "America's Pimpmaster General?" (That would be BunnyRanch owner Dennis Hof, who supports Paul.)

In 2008, Democratic candidates tiptoed around casino floors, lest they be photographed near a bank of slot machines. This year, Romney rallied hundreds of supporters in a Las Vegas warehouse full of toilet paper and drain cleaner. Down the street: a fizzled housing project called Treasure Valley.

"There are not a lot of places we can be indoors and have a group like this — other than having to pay a fortune for it," he said. (Hint: Try a casino.)

Paul dared to take his campaign to the Strip but chose the Four Seasons — a slot-free hotel — to rattle off the oddest of applause lines: Stop taxing tips! Get rid of airport security! A ragtag band of supporters — including a self-described "Viking drummer" — chanted, "President Paul!"

Richard Craig, a 50-year-old electrical engineer, gripped a Paul campaign sign and a plastic water bottle from Hooters filled with Glenlivet. The Texas native is here on a six-month contract.

"By the time I get back to Texas maybe he'll have won a state or two," he said.

Politics here has long been a product of the state's vice-is-virtue spirit. Nevada, after all, considered the legalization of gambling and quickie divorces as forms of economic development. It possessed the kind of chutzpah needed to plop a string of casinos in the Mojave Desert and expect them to make everyone rich. People flock here for second — and third — chances, politicians included.

Santorum, however, rolled snake-eyes.

In a TV interview, the sweater-vested candidate was forced to answer for his tangential role in a sex scandal involving a former Senate colleague. Nevada's John Ensign had an extramarital affair with a top aide's wife, and his friend Santorum tipped him off that the aide was trying to alert the media.

That probably didn't hurt him much, since voters here are a forgiving lot. But then — blasphemy! — he bemoaned the social costs of gambling, calling online wagering "dangerous."

In a last-gasp attempt to channel Iowa, where he eked out a minimal victory, Santorum scheduled a stop at Henderson's Omelet House — featuring the Bugsy Siegel, "an omelet you can't refuse!" At the last minute, he abandoned the event, made a brief swing through northern Nevada and fled to a state more his style: Missouri.

Gingrich took the stage one morning at a Republican hot spot in Las Vegas: Stoney's Rockin' Country, a bar that shares a plaza with a day-care center and a church. And what a stage it was: A disco ball glittered above, sawdust speckled the floor, and nearby was a tattered mechanical bull with duct-taped horns, ignored for the moment by the crowd.

"Some of you look like you've been here [since] last night," Gingrich said, though it was unclear whether he was aware of the previous night's entertainment: bikini bull-riding. The crowd — small but spirited, perhaps from drinking Bloody Marys and Baileys-spiked coffee — roared. Later, when Gingrich mentioned billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, someone screamed: "The devil!"

After the speech, Stoney's bartender Mike Roland, 26, was still leaning toward voting for Paul. But his morning wasn't a complete waste: Roland pocketed about $10 in tips. "Hey, it's more than I walked in here with," he said.

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