LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney opened his state campaign headquarters. Ron Paul rolled out his campaign's central policy plan. They're both in Nevada, a state that no one else seems to be contesting in earnest.
Most of the GOP field will convene here Tuesday for a presidential debate at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. But Monday, the contenders were scattered, with two canceling events in Nevada to protest the state's decision to move its caucuses earlier in 2012. That move has jeopardized New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were both campaigning in Arizona Monday. Rick Perry didn't hold any public events, though he does have staffers on the ground in Nevada and will speak Wednesday at a major conference here. Rick Santorum canceled Nevada events in "solidarity" with the early states. He went to Iowa instead, where he's pinned his presidential hopes on the first-in-the-country caucuses.
And former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has staked his whole campaign on New Hampshire, is leading the charge to boycott the state entirely. He says Nevada's decision to move its caucuses to Jan. 14 is an affront to New Hampshire. He campaigned in the Granite State Monday and plans a Tuesday town hall there right on top of the debate.
And Romney, who needs wins in both Nevada and New Hampshire, is facing new pressure from New Hampshire leaders — including some of his own supporters — to boycott Nevada after Iowa finalized its caucus date for Jan. 3.
But so far, for Romney and Paul, Nevada's 2012 caucuses are starting to look a lot like 2008, when Romney won overwhelmingly and Paul placed second. Much of Romney's support came from the state's sizable Mormon population.
For Paul, who has a devoted but narrow group of supporters but has struggled to appeal to a broader cross-section of voters, Nevada is promising. He beat John McCain, the eventual nominee, and the caucus system benefits his supporters' grassroots organizing system.
On Monday, he chose Las Vegas to roll out his campaign's comprehensive policy plan for the country.
In a ballroom at the Venetian with a cheering crowd of students behind him, Paul outlined his plan to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget and eliminate five Cabinet departments as soon as he takes office. (The losers: Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Interior and Education.) He would immediately Paul would immediately end all foreign aid and end America's involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Paul also wants to let young workers opt out of Social Security. He would repeal President Obama's health care legislation as well as major banking and campaign finance regulations. He would reduce corporate taxes, and he also wants to eliminate the Transportation Security Administration because he's concerned that airport screenings violate civil liberties.
"A lot of people will say, $1 trillion in a year, that's too radical," the libertarian Paul said Monday. "Well, the radicals have been in charge way too long."
Paul's plan, of course, differs dramatically from Romney's — but Romney also chose a venue in Nevada to roll out his major 59-point jobs plan earlier this year.
And on Monday, a handful of miles away from the Las Vegas Strip, Romney drew an enthusiastic crowd to open his state campaign office.
"I know you're not here because things are great in Nevada," said Romney, who appeared with Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "Things are going to be great after I'm president." Nevada has the country's highest unemployment rate and the highest rate of home foreclosures.
"Gov. Romney has been part of Nevada for many years. He is one of us. He knows our issues," Krolicki said in his introduction. Romney supporters bought pizza for the volunteers who made phone calls for Romney as part of the opening — "not Godfather's Pizza," Krolicki joked, a reference to Romney rival and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain.
Romney also refused to join Huntsman's boycott of the Nevada caucuses because they threaten New Hampshire. Romney said he'll compete in every contest as long as New Hampshire's primary remains first.
He's taking heat from Huntsman for it.
"If you're not with the people of New Hampshire, one has to wonder where you are, if there are political motives that are behind the expediting of the calendar in Nevada," Huntsman said during a New Hampshire campaign stop Monday when he was asked about Romney's refusal to boycott. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Romney's campaign urged the state to pick an earlier caucus date to help Romney's campaign.
Romney plans to spend some time on Tuesday tending to New Hampshire — the primary there is a must-win for his campaign, and he's led reliably in polls — even as he prepares for the Nevada debate. He plans a campaign conference call with top New Hampshire supporters Tuesday afternoon for "a campaign update directly from Mitt including his thoughts on the importance of New Hampshire's first in the nation primary."
But it's unclear if that will be enough. New Hampshire's state legislative leaders, including the state House majority leader, D.J. Bettencourt, who is one of Romney's top supporters in the state, have called on Romney to join the boycott.
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