LAS VEGAS — Nevada is preparing for its Cinderella moment.
While Iowa and New Hampshire get the bulk of their attention, Republican presidential candidates are starting to step up their activity in the state that votes next in the string of nominating contests and whose caucuses could scramble the GOP race.
The Nevada caucuses had been set tentatively for Feb. 18, but state Republicans voted Saturday to move them up to January. That would put them ahead of Florida's newly scheduled Jan. 31 primary — but will cost Nevada half of its delegates to the GOP's national convention.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and Georgia businessman Herman Cain have been working Nevada for months in advance of the caucuses. They've hired campaign staffs, opened offices and assembled networks of volunteers.
The other candidates are starting to follow, mindful of the huge fundraising and popularity bump that comes with winning one of the three states that kick off the voting.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman added a Nevada casino titan to his financial team this month. Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are chatting up potential field coordinators and are expected to visit soon.
State Republicans hope the contest will make Nevada a major player in 2012, four years after the state botched its caucuses. Nevada wanted to become a king-maker in 2008, but its nonbinding, winner-takes-all caucuses at the time offered candidates few reasons to campaign early in the state.
For 2012, the vote will be binding and delegates will be decided proportionally, giving less prominent candidates a reason to compete.
"We've learned," said GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval. "You can see the momentum statewide" this time.
The spotlight turns to Nevada this month when national Republicans and Democrats hold conferences in Las Vegas. The events will bookend a GOP debate on Oct. 18, the only remaining candidate forum scheduled west of Iowa before January.
Of all the Republicans, Romney has focused on Nevada the most. He's spent months setting up offices and securing endorsements from lawmakers across the vast, mostly rural state.
Nevada figures so prominently that he recently announced his jobs plan at a North Las Vegas trucking company and held a telephone town hall with voters last week in which he noted the state's struggling economy.
"Nevada is suffering as almost no other state in America is suffering," he said. "One of the reasons I've done meetings in Nevada and come to Nevada time and again is to show my support for Nevada. I want to get it back on its feet again."
An aide repeatedly asked during the 30-minute call for people to commit to voting for Romney in the caucuses and to volunteer for the campaign. Romney won the caucuses in his failed presidential bid four years ago, partly because his Mormon faith helped him connect with Nevada's many Mormon voters.
His strength this time around initially seemed to scare off other contenders and potential foes, with Huntsman, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and others only making cursory visits to the state throughout the first half of the year.
Then Perry entered the race and threatened Romney's firm grip over the state.
Sandoval quickly endorsed Perry, citing his record of job growth in Texas. The state's strong tea party contingent could be a natural constituency for Perry over Romney, who's seen more skeptically by tea party activists. Remember, this is a state that nominated tea party favorite Sharron Angle in last year's Senate race.
Perry has indicated he will compete everywhere, and Sandoval said he expects Perry to visit Nevada soon.
Perry's doesn't support building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and he signed a law allowing illegal immigrants to get in-state college tuition rates. This approach on immigration could endear him to the Nevada's largest Hispanic population.
Paul, the Texas congressman, could be a major factor, given the state's libertarian roots. For months, his supporters have campaigned door to door and hosted get-out-the-vote rallies.
He ran for president twice before, once as the Libertarian Party candidate. As a Republican candidate in 2008, he placed second in the Nevada caucuses behind Romney. This year, Paul has won a series of test votes and came in a close second in the biggest, the Iowa straw poll in August, proving the ability of Paul backers to put together the type of organization needed to win the caucuses.
Paul recently stopped by Reno to raise cash and talk policy, only weeks after opening a campaign office in southern Nevada.
Others with far less money, including Huntsman, Bachmann and Cain, are trying to compete, given that Nevada is a comparatively cheap state to win. It has only one large media market in Las Vegas and a much smaller one in Reno. Those two cities are on opposite ends of the state near the California border, and military bases and stretches of empty land basically fill the space in between.
Preparations are well under way for the caucuses.
The Nevada GOP recently hired a consulting firm with ties to the Republican National Committee to oversee the contest. Sandoval is helping the party raise cash to fund its most high-tech caucus yet. A machine at the door of each caucus site will scan identification cards to ensure participants are legitimate and to avoid lengthy lines that can persuade voters to turn around and head back home.
Nevada Republicans hope a strong caucus turnout will help them lay the groundwork for a competitive general election race against President Barack Obama.
Obama won the state in 2008 after two decades of boom. Nevada now holds the highest unemployment rate in the nation and voters here are desperate for a candidate who can revive the stalled economy.
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