LAS VEGAS — In the days leading up to the Feb. 23 Nevada caucuses, Marco Rubio’s campaign office in Las Vegas buzzed with activity.
Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison was there, personally calling likely Rubio supporters and reminding them to participate. The campaign has been phoning voters, knocking on doors and organizing caucus training sessions for months in a state where the freshman senator from Florida spent several years of his childhood.
“We feel like we’re the best-organized campaign in Nevada right now,” said Hutchison, who joined the campaign as state chairman 10 months ago and is working with staff from the respected political consultancy that helped propel Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval to victory.
“If you gauge how well candidates are going to do based on grassroots organization and involvement, Marco Rubio’s got an edge,” he said.
Because Nevada’s caucus model demands more of a time commitment from voters, takes place on a Tuesday night and requires participants to have gotten their registration in order more than a week ago, Hutchison and others in Rubio’s camp hope what they feel is a superior ground game will pay off against GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
“The margin’s so small in terms of what’s going to make a difference in these elections,” Hutchison said. “We just want to get as many votes as we can.”
The billionaire businessman, meanwhile, leading in the few preference polls taken in the state ahead of the caucuses, suggested recently a win is a foregone conclusion.
“Maybe I don’t even have to go there and campaign, I don’t know,” he said with a smile last week at the Sun City retirement community in Bluffton, South Carolina.
But Trump showed another side in talking to supporters in Las Vegas the night of Feb. 22, suggesting that caucuses are puzzling and saying “nobody even knows what it means.”
“Forget the word caucus, just go out and vote, OK?” he said. “I don’t want to give you an excuse. What the hell is caucus?”
Trump’s efforts to build a get-out-the-vote effort in Nevada don’t appear to match those put together by Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won Iowa’s leadoff caucuses on the strength of his ground game.
The real estate mogul’s Nevada operation is based at two offices opened late last year and led by 20-something political operative Charles Munoz, who once worked for Americans for Prosperity, the group affiliated with the billionaire Koch brothers.
Last week, a Trump surrogate declined to appear at a breakfast organized by the Las Vegas-based group Hispanics in Politics, apparently unfazed that representatives from all other major candidates were there.
The group’s President, Republican Fernando Romero, said he tried to persuade one of two Trump supporters he’d met recently to come to the breakfast.
“We’re not running into any (Trump supporters),” Romero said. “I personally have not witnessed it, and it’s not like I’m hiding in a closet.”
“I really don’t believe it’s a good system,” Trump told radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview Monday. “You know, I like to have a person walk in, vote and leave, as opposed to walk in, sit around and who knows what happens.”
While Cruz’s campaign dispatched the state’s rising-star conservative attorney general, Adam Laxalt, onto the trail, and Rubio’s campaign padded its long list of Nevada endorsements over the weekend with Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller and several state legislative leaders, the number of notable Nevada elected officials on Team Trump remains stagnant at one.
Republican Assemblyman Brent Jones is an outsider among outsiders who’s rankled members of his party by recruiting a slate of fellow anti-tax candidates to run against them. After backing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker early in the race, Jones said the Trump campaign found him rather than the other way around.
His children’s nanny showed up to work one day in a Trump T-shirt. And then the owner of a cafe in his Las Vegas-area district went on a pro-Trump tirade for so long that Jones wondered if he’d get served at all.
“It was the passion of the average people — not people in the beltway,” Jones said. “Something was really going on.”
Trump has made several trips to the state, drawing crowds thousands-strong. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s national campaign manager, said he and his team are now focused on providing Trump supporters with the information they will need to take part in Tuesday’s caucuses.
The campaign recently launched an online search page that allows voters to plug in their addresses and find out their caucus location, and has been holding caucus training sessions.
The enthusiasm for Trump was on display at Trump’s caucus-eve event at Las Vegas’s South Point Arena, which drew an estimated crowd of more than 6,000.
While many surveyed in the crowd said they had not received any communication from the campaign, others reported receiving frequent emails and phone calls.
Several also said they had changed their registration to Republicans so they could vote for Trump and had attended a campaign-run caucus training session. John Galardi, 73, a Republican from Las Vegas who is retired from a construction company, said the session he attended drew between 40-50 others.
“I’m still a little confused,” said Galardi, who has never taken part in a caucus before, but he said he’s planning to attend so he can cast his vote for Trump. “I like everything about him. He’s giving American pride back.”
Jones acknowledged Trump’s spotty organization in the state could affect his performance on Tuesday, but said a groundswell of working-class Nevadans who don’t run in the usual political circles are ready to propel a plainspoken, unflappable candidate to victory.
“He’s willing to fight, and our Republican Party is so unwilling to fight,” Jones said. “The GOP just caves, caves, caves.”
(MICHELLE RINDELS and JILL COLVIN)