Republican presidential field starts to cozy up to Nevada GOP


AP Photo/Cathleen Allison

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour answers media questions following an event with Republican supporters and party leaders in Carson City on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. Barbour also met with Gov. Brian Sandoval following the event.

Wed, Mar 23, 2011 (2 a.m.)

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

The Republican presidential field, if it can even be called that yet, has begun an early flirtation with Nevada’s GOP power structure.

The latest example: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s quick swing through Northern Nevada on Tuesday where he met with Republican lawmakers, party leaders, potential donors and the king of all GOP prizes in the Silver State: Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Barbour, along with the rest of the GOP’s potential hopefuls, hasn’t formally declared his candidacy.

But his trip made aware Republican kingmakers in the state — with its third-in-the-nation presidential primary contest — that he’ll likely be on the dance card. And he wasn’t shy about declaring his intentions.

“I’m here because I’m thinking about running for president,” he said in a series of meetings in Reno and Carson City.

“If I run, I will compete to win Nevada,” he told reporters.

But with the state’s caucuses a little less than a year away, a vague malaise about the race appears to have settled on the Nevadans whose attention Barbour sought. And his visit Tuesday did little to stir their interest.

“What? I thought it was Halle Berry we were going to see,” joked Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, after leaving a lunch with Barbour. “I don’t know. He was charming and personable. But I don’t know if he’s in the top presidential tier here.”

Sandoval’s office issued this less-than-glowing statement afterward: “It was a courtesy meeting between two governors. The meeting lasted less than a half-hour.”

But part of the lack of enthusiasm likely reflects the party’s inability to produce a uniting figure so far despite a long list of potential candidates — Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, to name just a few.

One of the earliest steps toward building a presence in an early contest state is wrapping up establishment support. Such a dynamic was evident on the Democratic side in the run-up to the 2008 caucuses, when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Bill Richardson raced to lock up key donors, lawmakers and consultants.

A parallel process hasn’t yet begun in earnest on the Republican side.

“I don’t hear any talk in this building about it at all,” state Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, said. “Even in my talks with my Republican friends there doesn’t seem to be a favorite out there.”

Still, the candidates must zero in on who would be most valuable in aiding their pursuit of a victory here.

But the person at the top of all the candidates’ lists may be unattainable. Sandoval, who reigns as the GOP’s top elected official and is popular with voters, is expected to remain neutral.

Indeed, that’s all Barbour wants Sandoval to do — at least at this point.

“If I were he, I wouldn’t even think about endorsing anybody for president for a long, long time,” Barbour said. “I assume he’s going to keep his powder dry until we get up to or even beyond the Nevada caucuses.”

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