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Trump looms large in Nevada, but caucus turnout hard to predict

Breaking down Donald Trump - an annotated speech

How do Donald Trump’s speeches match up with the facts? We annotated an hour-long speech from the campaign trail.
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How do Donald Trump’s speeches match up with the facts? We annotated an hour-long speech from the campaign trail.

On his way to winning the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina on Saturday, Donald Trump glanced west to the next contest, in Nevada, and to public opinion polls that put him up big here, as well.

Trump’s popularity was “beyond belief,” he told a crowd in Bluffton, S.C., last week. “Maybe I don’t even have to go there and campaign.”

Polling is notoriously difficult in Nevada, a caucus state where the nominating process is less intuitive than in a primary. Turnout is hard to predict.

Yet following decisive victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Trump is widely viewed as the Republican favorite heading into the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday. The real estate developer and TV personality appears especially well situated in a state whose sensibilities run not only to low taxes and limited government, but also to glitz.

“It’s a good state for Donald Trump,” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Nevada likes flash and celebrity. That’s what we’re built on.”

It’s a good state for Donald Trump. Nevada likes flash and celebrity. That’s what we’re built on.

Eric Herzik, political science professor at University of Nevada, Reno

In conservative Douglas County on Monday, moderate Republicans were left shaking their heads.

“We reached some tone of civility in our country, and he’s blowing it out the window,” Tom Brooks, owner of a golf course in Gardnerville, said after a golfer who supports Trump stepped into his office to ask where the local caucus was being held. “Everybody’s so angry … They’re so mad at Washington, they just want someone in there who is going to shoot cannons.”

Outside the clubhouse, the golfer, Matt Lindsey, climbed into his cart.

“I hate ‘politically correct,’ ” the retired machinist said, calling Trump “the only one I see who isn’t lying.”

Lindsey said he “will be there with bells on” to caucus for Trump on Tuesday.

I will be there with bells on.

Matt Lindsey, Donald Trump supporter who plans to caucus for him Tuesday

In the run-up to this week’s caucuses, Trump organized rallies in Las Vegas and Elko, while Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas crisscrossed the state in their likely race for second place. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, ran a radio ad comparing his soft-speaking demeanor – the antithesis of Trump – to that of President Theodore Roosevelt, while Cruz attacked Trump for opposing efforts to transfer federally managed lands to the states.

“Eighty-five percent of Nevada is owned and regulated by the federal government, and Donald Trump wants to keep big government in charge,” Cruz said in a 30-second TV ad released last week. “That’s ridiculous.”

In an interview with Field & Stream magazine last month, Trump said he does not support transferring federally managed lands to the states “because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do.”

The appeal by Cruz, who vowed to “fight day and night” to shift control of Nevada lands away from the federal government, was in keeping with the candidate’s focus on rural areas of the state. But it also recalled the crowd-pleasing rhetoric of a former presidential hopeful who was popular in Nevada, Ron Paul.

Paul, then a congressman from Texas, finished third in the caucuses in 2012, behind Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. But Paul rallied a vocal group of libertarians who disrupted the caucus process and refused to cast votes for Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said “the anti-government stuff plays here.”

Trump, who owns a hotel in Las Vegas, is admired by many Republicans for his views on immigration and terrorism and for his disassociation from Washington, D.C. Robert Hullin, who owns an insurance brokerage in Reno, took his daughters to a Trump rally in the city last month and plans to caucus for him on Tuesday.

“It’s like, ‘God, this is your future and your country,’ ” he said. “Right now it’s in the worst shape that it’s ever been in … and it’s time that we really need to get a whole new approach to fixing things.”

Despite his success in public opinion polls, a significant liability for Trump in Nevada, as in other states, is his lack of campaign infrastructure to organize supporters. Only about 3 million people live in Nevada, and participation in each of the past two Republican presidential caucuses has been dismal, with about 33,000 Republicans taking part in 2012.

Adam Khan, chairman of the Washoe County Republican Party, said that while Trump drew thousands of people to a rally in the county last month, “there was no one on site registering voters” to support him in the caucuses.

“It’s people who are not really that involved in the process who are really the Trump fans,” said Cory Christensen, a Nevada Republican consultant who worked for Romney in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “So will they show up and do a very traditional political activity? I don’t know.”

“On the other hand,” said Christensen, acknowledging Trump’s widespread appeal, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

At the golf course on the Carson River, Trump’s lead in two recent Nevada polls and his success in the early nominating states disheartened Brooks. He plans to caucus for Ohio Gov. John Kasich but is not overly optimistic about his prospects.

“All the other candidates scare the hell out of me,” Brooks said.

Other voters have tuned out, altogether.

“I think that most of the Ron Paul folks now have kind of lost interest,” said Wayne Terhune, a Paul supporter who was chairman of the Nevada delegation to the party’s national convention in 2012. He saw some support this year go to the former candidate’s son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who left the race after a disappointing finish in the Iowa caucuses.

“A lot of them supported Rand, and now he’s gone. So Trump or somebody? It’s kind of sad,” Terhune said.

I think that most of the Ron Paul folks now have kind of lost interest.

Wayne Terhune, 2012 chairman of the Nevada delegation to the party’s national convention

Terhune, a Sparks dentist, said he can’t get behind any of the Republican candidates and won’t caucus.

“I’m not going,” he said. “I won’t be there.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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