- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

GARDNERVILLE, Nev. (AP) - Four Republican presidential candidates rallied hundreds of voters at a Basque-themed barbecue in Nevada on Saturday, a sign the state is coming into its own as a relatively new hotspot for campaigns.

About 1,500 people, many wearing plaid shirts, cowboy hats and boots, noshed on chorizo and Basque stew while taking in speeches from retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former tech CEO Carly Fiorina, Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The event on a ranch in rural Gardnerville took a cue from events like Iowa’s Harkin Steak Fry, which attracted top-tier Democratic candidates for four decades.

Candidates donned cowboy boots and jeans and tweaked their campaign pitches to the rural Nevada audience. Fiorina referenced one of the menu items - a Basque stew featuring “lamb fries,” or lamb testicles - in a riff about sexism against female candidates.

Cruz alluded to Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s successful push to raise taxes in the state when he panned “campaign conservatism” and vowed to carry through an uncompromising agenda if elected.

The speakers also urged more local control of public lands and natural resources. It’s a hot-button issue in Nevada, where the federal government manages more than 80 percent of the land and where rancher Cliven Bundy was involved in a high-profile showdown with federal officials last year over grazing rights.



“It was exactly the event we could’ve dreamed of,” said Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican who modeled the barbecue after events his Basque grandfather, former Sen. Paul Laxalt, held in Washington.

Nevada has become a popular stop for presidential candidates after moving up in the nominating order in 2008. The state’s caucuses come after primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, making Nevada a target for candidates hoping to score the first win in a Western state.

A swing state, Nevada went for Barack Obama in the past two presidential cycles but swept Republicans into all key state elected posts in 2014. It counts fewer than 3 million people.

“Anyone who spends time here has a great shot at winning this state,” Laxalt said. “I believe this state is absolutely wide open right now.”

About half of the Republican field has started building a staff in Nevada, according to political consultant and Cruz adviser Robert Uithoven. Jeb Bush has the most established team, including chairmen in all 17 Nevada counties who will work to turn out Bush supporters at the state’s February caucus. Bush landed key endorsements this week from Sen. Dean Heller, Rep. Mark Amodei and former Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki.

Other candidates are also building campaign infrastructure in Nevada. Walker’s campaign enlisted former Nevada Gov. Bob List to lead his push, while Sen. Marco Rubio tapped sitting Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison to helm his Nevada campaign.

“You can’t talk about wanting to do well in the first in the West, without going, ‘How are we doing on the ground?’” Amodei said about Nevada’s caucus model. “You’ve got to bring the most kids to the dance.”

Nevada Democrats pre-emptively rebutted the Republican headliners, saying in a press conference Friday that any of the speakers would be “a disaster” for the middle class. But they acknowledged that having voters gather for a Nevada-style event was a good idea.

“It’s good to have the candidates come because the more they talk about their extreme views … the more they’ll turn off the vast majority of Nevadans who don’t agree with those extreme views,” said Democratic former state lawmaker Sheila Leslie.

Republicans say the Basque Fry and any copycats it spurs could help increase caucus turnout above current low levels, convincing top party leaders to keep Nevada in the early nominating position. They also say the gatherings give voters a chance to engage directly with candidates on issues specific to the West.

“I think Nevada has really grown up as an early caucus state, and the voters are the beneficiaries,” Uithoven said.

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