In Nevada, a bevy of worries
With Saturday's "first in the West" GOP presidential caucuses coming to Nevada, four candidates will come to this unpredictable state to battle for votes.
San Francisco Chronicle
BLUE DIAMOND, Nev. — Hundreds of crumpled dollar bills are tacked to the ceiling of the bar at Bonnie Springs Ranch, a 105-acre back roads hideaway that has seen plenty of booms and busts since "Badwater Bonnie" Levinson bought it in 1952.
But sitting under the ancient canopy of the restaurant founded by his now-92-year-old mother, owner Alan Levinson said Tuesday that even veteran Nevadans are shaking their heads when they talk about the economic bust that has pummeled the Silver State since 2005.
"Nevada is still the wild West," said Levinson, motioning to stunning Red Rock Canyon, dotted with Joshua trees and wild burros, a half-hour drive from the Las Vegas Strip. "Here, it's still open territory."
And in the rugged, libertarian-leaning state that's home to legal brothels, high-roller heaven and a self-proclaimed "university" that teaches pole dancing, residents revel in their pioneer spirit but want direction from politicians, Levinson said.
"Small businesses need some help," he said. They need less regulation, lower taxes and a little more leadership. The next president, Levinson said, will "need to carry a .45 on each hip to be capable of running the country — someone who can tackle the problems and get it done."
With Saturday's "first in the West" GOP presidential caucuses coming to Nevada barely a week after President Obama dropped in for a fundraiser, four candidates will come to this unpredictable state to battle for votes.
While jobs and the economy will dominate the GOP race, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said Nevada will provide "a great litmus test" of other issues, including water rights, transportation, energy and natural resources.
Polls show former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won the 2008 Nevada presidential caucuses by pushing his business acumen, enjoys a solid lead, boosted by a big investment and loyal support from a sizable Mormon population.
But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaign could receive a boost from the decision of the state Republican Party to allow a special evening caucus for "religious" voters who can't attend Saturday morning sessions. It will be held at the private school funded by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the observant Orthodox Jew who with his wife donated $10 million to Gingrich's super PAC.
Romney, Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul aim to appeal to an expected 50,000 caucusers in a pro-gun, anti-tax state where the tea-party movement has thrived.
"When you look at the issues that bind the intermountain West region, it's all about federal government intrusion," said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., who added that the Bureau of Land Management controls more than 87 percent of the land in Nevada.
Rancher Marilyn Gruber, former chairwoman of the state GOP, said Nevada's highest-in-the-nation foreclosure rate is paramount. "It's all we talk about," she said.
Nevadans boast that their state has no personal income tax and no corporate tax, but it also has been crippled by daunting economic problems. The state's 12.6 percent unemployment rate, the nation's highest, is likely 10 percent higher when the underemployed and long-term unemployed are counted, said Stephen P.A. Brown, of the Center for Business and Economic Research of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
It's "the result of not having a very diversified economy," with gaming long the lifeblood of the state, he said.
But Nevada in the early part of the decade also became a magnet for retirees, middle-class workers and fortune-seekers attracted by the booming, low-cost housing market, Brown said. The bottom then fell out, leaving "all the people in construction still here looking for work and all the firms doing construction out of work or shuttered."