LAS VEGAS — The 2012 Republican presidential campaign heads West on Tuesday, as GOP rivals will debate and aim their campaigns at wary voters worn down by one of the nation’s most enduring economic slumps.
The two-hour debate at the Venetian Hotel-Resort-Casino in Las Vegas will be televised nationally by CNN, moderated by Anderson Cooper, and will begin at 8 p.m. EDT. On Wednesday, some GOP candidates are scheduled to speak to a convention of Republican activists from all over the West.
Tuesday’s debate will be down one candidate from preceding forums. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose chance of success here is seen as remote, will not participate. He’s protesting the state’s decision to hold its first-in-the-West caucus on Jan. 14.
Officials in New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the nation’s first primary, are annoyed with the early Nevada date and have threatened to hold their contest as soon as December.
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Huntsman, as well as some other candidates lagging in recent polls, are hoping for a breakthrough in New Hampshire, where waging a campaign tends to be less expensive and more dependent on personal contact with voters.
Nevada’s caucus is more a test of organization. All of the top-tier Nevada candidates — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, businessman Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — are expected to contest the state vigorously.
They’re expected to promote their proposed remedies this week for a state economy ailing like few others.
Devastated by the collapse of the construction industry and a slump in tourism, Nevada had a 13.4 percent unemployment rate in August, the worst of any state and well above the national average of 9.1 percent. The Nevada rate is worse since May, when it had dropped to 12.1 percent.
“We’ve been battered by this for so long, no one expects a silver bullet,” said David Damore, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Cain, who in recent weeks has surged to the top of some national polls, is expected to face more scrutiny of his “9-9-9” tax-rate proposal. The plan would replace the current federal tax system with 9 percent flat taxes on business income, individual income and sales.
Romney has a 59-point economic program that would lower taxes, ease regulatory burdens and repeal the 2010 federal health care law. Perry last week unveiled a proposal to promote domestic energy production and plans more details of his economic program later this month. Paul’s ideas include a pledge to veto any unbalanced federal budget and to reject any more debt ceiling increases.
While many conservative activists are not sold on any specific plan, they’re glad the candidates are paying attention.
“I think it’s a decent start. At least someone has finally opened the dialogue” on solutions,” said Karen Steelmon, Las Vegas Tea Party’s managing member. “The (government) system should work, and it’s not, and something needs to be done.”
Romney is the clear favorite here. A Mormon, he has close ties to the state’s sizable Mormon community and is fondly remembered for rescuing the nearby Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 after a bribery scandal and funding shortages threatened to derail the games. He won 51 percent of the caucus vote in 2008.
His rivals have a tough struggle ahead. Paul finished second in 2008, but he was far behind.
Of the others, “Perry has no natural constituency here,” said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at the University of Nevada in Reno, “and Cain appears to have no organization.”
Perry, said analysts, faces several problems. One is immigration, a huge issue here. The influential business community tends to want a smooth path to citizenship, while the more conservative tea party crowd seeks tougher border control and a crackdown on illegal aliens.
Perry has talked tough on border security, but his willingness in Texas to back in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants could damage him with conservatives.
“All of us here now came from somewhere else, and I’m not against immigration,” said Rick Crain, state coordinator of the Nevada Tea Party Patriots. “But Perry’s view on in-state tuition; I just don’t go there. The word illegal means illegal.”
Perry’s claims that he presided over a decent Texas economy are unlikely to resonate.
“We don’t drill for oil here,” said Herzik.
One threat to Romney might have been Huntsman, who from 2005 through 2009 was governor of Utah, which shares a long border with Nevada. But Huntsman, barely visible in national polls, is putting all his hopes on a good New Hampshire showing.
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