- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2012

LAS VEGAS — Back to the caucuses.

After three big primaries that seemed to write, rewrite and then re-rewrite the 2012 GOP campaign storyline, the candidates now begin a stretch run where four of the next five contests are caucuses, and the fifth, a primary in Missouri next week, is less relevant because convention delegates there actually will be chosen later this year in — yep — a caucus.

Nevada looms first, on Saturday, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum already are here, having conceded they weren’t going to do well in Florida’s primary but banking on the friendlier — and cheaper — confines of a caucus state. They spent the morning in Colorado, then flew to Nevada by evening.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won’t be far behind. Both head to Nevada on Wednesday, with Mr. Romney making a quick detour through Minnesota, which holds its caucuses next week.

Primaries are like any other election, and draw a wide swath of voters. Caucuses are far more limited. They usually take several hours, chasing away casual drop-in voters while attracting dedicated followers, and they reward so-called “ground game” organizations more than the “air war” fought by television ads.

“As we look ahead, its not necessarily going to be a two-person race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in every state,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a strategist for Mr. Romney. “In Nevada, I think Ron Paul will be Gov. Romney’s most serious competitor. I think in Missouri it could be someone like Rick Santorum. Or Minnesota, Rick Santorum.”

Nevada’s caucuses come first, with meetings at 125 locations statewide on Saturday. Colorado and Minnesota are slated for Tuesday, as is Missouri’s nonbinding primary. Maine’s caucuses already have started as a trickle, but hit full steam this weekend and run through the middle of February.

Of those contests, only Nevada’s caucuses will actually award delegates to the nominating convention. But each state will shape things going forward, as Mr. Romney hopes to continue his momentum and the other three candidates try to steal a victory or two and change the contours of the race.

Andrew Busch, chairman of the government department at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., said Mr. Romney will try to avoid the storyline that President Jimmy Carter faced when running for re-election in 1980.

“Jimmy Carter would win the crucial primaries and then, when it seemed like he had things wrapped up, voters would give Ted Kennedy a protest vote,” Mr. Busch said. “Romney will have to hope a scenario like that does not develop.”

The caucuses also present a chance for candidates to pick up delegates at a low cost.

Nevada will award 28 delegates Saturday, three more than South Carolina did, even though its likely only one-tenth as many people will turn out to vote.

That’s true across all four states, where the GOP caucuses in 2008 attracted slightly more than 160,000 voters, or far less than voted in New Hampshire’s primary alone Jan. 10. New Hampshire was worth 12 delegates, while these four caucus states are worth a total of 128 delegates.

Still, given the way some caucuses work, the final delegate allocation will have to wait for state conventions.

Analysts said Mr. Romney is poised to do well in February. Forgotten amid his loss to Sen. John McCain in the 2008 nomination battle is that he won the caucuses in all four of these states, and by giant margins.

But last year Nevada’s caucuses were held on the same day as South Carolina’s primary, which overshadowed events here.

This time around, all sides expect stiffer competition.

“I do not think any of the candidates will be able to afford to ignore it this time. Assuming Romney wins Florida, all other candidates will be on life-support and will be desperately seeking somewhere to start a comeback, if nothing else than by showing respectably,” Mr. Busch said.

Mr. Paul has spent the most time in Nevada, establishing an organization early and hoping to build on his second-place showing here in 2008. And he’s also spent time in Maine in the past week, working for delegates while the other candidates were in Florida.

“They made no bones about it — the Paul folks are really gunning for these caucus states,” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina who runs Frontloading HQ, a blog about the primary calendar. “In the process, they may have raised the bar on how well they should do. They’re very organized. They know the rules.”

And in an interesting juxtaposition of family values in a place not usually known for them, the Paul campaign announced that Mr. Paul and his wife will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary Wednesday in Las Vegas.

The next major binding primaries are Feb. 28, and Mr. Putnam said it’s likely all of the candidates will survive until then. The question, he said, is what sort of arguments Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum use to persuade their supporters, and potential voters, that they still have a path to victory.

“All four of these candidates will make it through February. Ron Paul’s in it for the long haul; he’s not going anywhere. The real question is what will Gingrich and Santorum do?” he said, adding that barring some victories, “arguments become much harder to make.”

Seth McLaughlin, reporting from Florida, contributed to this report.

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