GOP Descend on Vegas for Debate

Oct 18, 2011 6:00am

Sin City is a gambler’s paradise, but this week there’s not just a lot at stake in the casinos: the Republican political elite will be wheeling and dealing at Tuesday’s GOP debate in Las Vegas.

When Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and company take the stage at the Venetian hotel for the CNN debate, Nevada’s issues are sure to be a hot topic, simply because the Silver State is plagued by many of the same issues that the nation as a whole faces: massive foreclosures, high unemployment, and the immigration question, to name a few.

Oh, and of course there’s that thorny issue of the GOP primary calendar, too. Jon Huntsman, for one, will not be anywhere near Nevada this week, protesting the possibility of the state moving its caucus to an earlier date next January. Then again, with Huntsman’s low standing in the polls, one could question whether or not his absence matters to begin with.

After all, this is a state with far more pressing issues. Nevada leads the nation in a few categories that no state wants to win: tops in foreclosures and tops in unemployment. For an election that seems likely to turn on economic matters, expect the candidates to hone in on their plans to propel the country out of recession. In fact, Romney last month chose to unveil his economic proposal in a speech just outside this city.

“Nevada is probably reflective of everything else that’s going on with the nation when it comes to unemployment, the economy, and the foreclosure issue that we’ve been dealing with here,” Alex Garza, a Hispanic activist and vice-chairman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview.

“I think every other state in the nation is looking to Nevada to see how we rebound from this,” he added. “We were the first to get hit, the hardest to get hit, but we’re also going to be the first, I think, to rebound and to overcome the situation that we’re in. And that’s why this state is so important because the rest of the nation is looking to us to see what’s going to happen here.”

And then there’s immigration, an issue that has already reared its head in this campaign due to Perry’s background as governor of Texas. Latinos make up over a quarter of all Nevadans, and the state’s governor Brian Sandoval is Latino – and he has already endorsed Perry.

Not only that, the Latino population here is on the rise, up seven percent in the past decade. At the moment a debate is raging over whether or not to create Latino majority districts to make sure Latinos are represented politically. In an odd twist since Latinos tend to vote for Democrats, Democrats oppose the move, while Republicans favor it.

At a strip mall on the outskirts of town, a single mother of two who identified herself only as Ana said that she’s far more worried about the economy than immigration.

“I am working two jobs today. Three years ago it was only one,” she said.

In 2008, Latinos backed Barack Obama by a two-to-one margin, propelling him to a 55-43 victory here. That was a change from four years earlier when the state narrowly sided with President George W. Bush over Sen. John Kerry.

Ana, for one, said she voted for Obama last time, but will now be supporting the Republican nominee, whoever it is.

“I don’t want promises,” she said.

This time around the GOP nod in Nevada’s January’s caucuses appears to be Romney’s to lose. The state has a substantial Mormon population, an advantage for Romney.

In addition, as evidenced by last weekend’s financial reports, high-rollers have supported Romney and Perry in a big way when compared to their Republican rivals. The two candidates now enjoy a wide money margin over their competitors.

But success on the debate stage — as evidenced in part by Cain’s recent surge – has little to do with money.

“The candidates are going to have to be able to impart their vision with voters,” said Garza. “We’ve heard the rhetoric in the past. We know the rhetoric from Democrats and Republicans. I think the winner of this debate is whoever can share their vision of improving our economy, lowering our unemployment, improving our education system, and helping small businesses grow. I think that is what is going to be the catalyst.”

Here on the Vegas Strip, the stakes are always high and, come Tuesday’s debate  it will be no different when politics becomes the new game in town. And this time, what happens in Vegas definitely does not stay in Vegas.

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