Battle for the 'Cactus Corridor'

As electoral votes line up, Bush and Kerry fight over how to win in a changing West.

Walter and Louanne LeBeau remember a time when most of their neighbors were conservative like them. Staunch supporters of President Bush, the LeBeaus back his tax cuts and support him on "the moral issues." While they have questions about Iraq, they feel Mr. Bush is the best candidate to "get this thing settled," says Walter, who works for a car company.

But lately, "we feel like we're in the minority," says Louanne, eating at an In-N-Out Burger on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Over the past few years, many Californians have moved into the area, she says, bringing more liberal views with them - and turning this once reliably Republican state into one of the most competitive battlegrounds in the nation.

With fewer states in play as the race enters its final days - and whole regions of the country now largely uncontested - the campaigns are still focusing intently on no fewer than three Western states: New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. It was no accident that Bush and Sen. John Kerry both went to Las Vegas after their third debate; in the past week alone, Nevadans have also been treated to visits from Laura Bush and Elizabeth Edwards, with Senator Kerry scheduled to stop in Reno again Friday.

The competitiveness of the "Cactus Corridor" was foreshadowed in 2000: Despite all the attention paid to Florida, New Mexico was the most narrowly decided state, with Al Gore squeaking out a surprise win by just 366 votes. Driving that victory was a churn of demographic change - including an influx of retirees, young workers, Hispanics, and military families - that has been reshaping the face, and increasingly the politics, of the entire region.

And Nevada is the fastest-growing state of them all. During the 1990s, the Silver State grew by an astonishing 67 percent; since 2000 alone, it has gained some 200,000 new residents - making its political leanings harder and harder to predict. After voting Republican in every presidential election since 1968, Nevadans narrowly went for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 (in part because of strong support for Ross Perot). This year, most analysts tend to give Bush a slight edge - he won here in 2000, albeit by a mere 22,000 votes, and most polls have shown him holding onto a slim lead. But nearly everyone agrees the results will hinge on how many new residents show up to vote.

"Ultimately, it comes down to turnout," says David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). "If the Democrats can get their newly registered voters to the polls, they have a chance of winning."

Stark dichotomies and clashing views

Like most battleground states, Nevada is highly polarized - and for both sides, winning means generating high turnout in their strongholds to offset losses elsewhere. Bush's strongest support comes from the rural parts of the state, among ranchers and miners who typify Nevada's longtime antitax, antiregulation conservatism. Kerry's chances, on the other hand, lie in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and holds some two-thirds of the state's total population. It tilts slightly Democratic - though not overwhelmingly so.

"The state is really tight right now," says Sig Rogich, a longtime Republican strategist. He estimates that Bush will gain a plurality of at least 70,000 votes from the rural parts of the state - "which means Kerry would have to beat Bush in Clark County by 12 or 13 percent" to win overall, a task Mr. Rogich sees as difficult but not impossible.

Yet even within Las Vegas, the political dialogue seems unusually stark - reflecting the nation's mood, perhaps, but also the effects of a community of newcomers, in which most political views were shaped elsewhere and now seem to clash rather than meld.

Sitting two booths away from the LeBeaus at the In-N-Out Burger, Irwin and Annette Foster offer a sharply different take on the presidential campaign. Retirees from Los Angeles, they think the UN needs to take a bigger role in Iraq, are aghast that the administration "outsourced" the manufacturing of the flu vaccine, and offer a ready list of things they dislike about Bush: "His lack of knowledge," Annette says.

"His refusal to admit when he's wrong," says Irwin. "He's the first president in my lifetime that I don't trust."

With early voting already underway, both sides are doing what they can to ratchet up intensity even further. Along with candidate stops, there have been visits by surrogates - including filmmaker Michael Moore, who held a rally last week at UNLV. Events are playing on emotions, too: Local headlines have been dominated by a recent scandal involving a voter-registration firm that allegedly tore up Democratic registrations.

A strong sense of who they want

Interviews with voters in and around Las Vegas turn up almost no one who's undecided - though a few have switched allegiance from last time around. Pushing their two daughters in a stroller at a weekend art festival in Summerlin, Denise and Tim Haines say they both voted for Bush in 2000 - but are strong Kerry supporters now. Denise has gone so far as to coordinate a "Moms for Kerry" rally in the area.

The 2000 election was the first time she had voted, she explains, and among her colleagues, it seemed like "there were just so many people that were going for Bush," that she went along with them.

But since then, both she and her husband have become disillusioned with Bush's policies, from the war in Iraq to his opposition to stem-cell research. Indeed, they express suspicion of the president's motives and intentions. Both believe the draft will be reinstated if Bush wins, and they raise questions about his family's ties to Saudi Arabia. Tim criticizes the way the president handled the aftermath of 9/11 - including allowing Osama bin Laden's relatives to leave the country. "Everyone watches 'C.S.I.' - and crime scenes are handled a certain way," he says. "Why wasn't this handled that way?"

Others are just as firmly in the president's camp. Watching her daughter cheer for the football team at Meadows school, Cheryl Smelser says she supports Bush for his belief in "faith and family," as well as for his stands on most issues. She believes the president has done a good job protecting America from terrorism - "we haven't had any more incidents since 9/11, so we're doing something right," she says. And she backs him on domestic issues: A nursing assistant who is currently without health insurance, she says that while she knows she "might benefit" from Kerry's healthcare plan, she thinks it would be bad for the country - and unaffordable. "Somebody's got to pay for it somewhere," she notes, suggesting higher taxes would be the end result.

As in much of the country, the top issues for voters here are national ones - the war, or healthcare, though they resonate slightly differently.

With so many veterans and military families in the state, support for Iraq has stayed above 50 percent here, likely boosting Bush's chances. Likewise, unemployment hasn't been a problem - aside from a slight dip in tourism after 9/11, Nevada has had one of the best economies in the nation. Healthcare is an issue for many here, but often seems to play along party lines.

Some local issues might factor into the equation - most notably, Yucca Mountain. Bush's decision to go forward with plans to store nuclear waste at the site 90 miles outside Las Vegas has been seen by some residents here as reneging on a promise. (During the 2000 campaign he said he would wait for a scientific seal of approval).

Mr. Rogich cites Kerry's call for a tax on mining - a plan that local newspapers have said would cost the state some 40,000 jobs - as a motivating issue in rural areas. There's also a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage, which some believe could drive more Democratic-leaning voters to the polls.

Yet overall, voters seem far more focused on the broader national themes, or on the candidates' personal traits, with many expressing strong opinions about the characters of both men.

What's still unclear is what impact this disparity of views will have on turnout. Certainly, stronger feelings among partisans on both sides could produce higher numbers at the polls. Yet in a place as transient as Las Vegas, the lack of a coherent thread tying the community together can also lead to a lack of civic participation - and lower voting rates. That's particularly true among the more Democratic-leaning voters, people like single working women, or minorities, who often are among the least ensconced in the community.

The biggest question mark on that front, analysts agree, is the Hispanic vote - the fastest-growing minority population here, and one that both parties have made huge efforts to reach, although Hispanics tend to lean Democratic. Significantly, Nevada is using touch-screen voting machines for the first time this year, and offering ballots in both English and Spanish.

Still, it's unclear how many Hispanics will actually vote. On the first day of early voting last weekend, over a few hours at Las Vegas's Meadows mall, large groups of Hispanics wandered in and out of shops - but only a handful were spotted among the lines of would-be voters.

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