LAS VEGAS, NV — On a sunny early morning, Nevada voters gathered in a Durango High School gym on Saturday to hear their friends and neighbors make the case for their favored Republican.
About a dozen precincts, each with about fifteen to twenty voters, assembled in the bleachers. Many, like Bryan Bagwell, a golf course superintendent, brought their whole families and young children scampered around throughout the proceedings. Bagwell arrived not knowing who he would vote for, torn between his head (Romney) and heart (Paul). Despite his precinct hearing three speakers for Paul and only one for Romney, none of the Paul arguments quite swayed him.
“It sounded so convincing to go the other way, but I marked it Romney,” he said. “I’m hoping he’ll take some of Ron Paul’s ideas on the Constitution and incorporate them.”
Steve Stone, a former Marine and now semi-retired veteran benefits counselor, told me he had made up his mind just last night after seeing Gingrich speak at a local church. “I needed to see that he could seriously handle Obama,” he said. “And he was fantastic, so humble.”
Stone was hardly the only veteran in the military-heavy crowd — as we talked, other ex-Marines overheard and interrupted to introduce themselves. I left them as they caught up with a whirlwind flurry of dates, call numbers, acronyms, and “Semper Fi!”s.
Romney’s pre-caucus Vegas rally wasn’t without its charms either. Bill Zinnel, who runs a junior Air Force ROTC program at a high school, said he was swayed towards Romney by his event the night before with Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who he referred to as “the other handsome-looking dude.”
“I was a Gingrich guy, but I thought Romney had the wherewithal to actually win,” he said. “If we’re going to beat the O-Man, he’s the guy to do it.”
Eva, an accountant in the area, told me she was also going for Newt, but was already mentally preparing herself for what she assumed was inevitable: a Romney nomination.
“It’ll be a disappointment,” she said. “But I’ll have to vote for Romney if he wins.”
Two precincts down the bleachers, a middle-aged mustachioed speaker for Ron Paul rose to make the local case to the Las Vegas crowd: “He’s against the TSA, which has hurt tourism around the country.”
Richard Salaz followed him with an impassioned address on behalf of Gingrich, saying that he knew from his 45 years in government service — as a military officer, then a state and city employee in Oregon — that Newt’s DC experience should merit a vote.
“If you’ve been in DC, you’ll see it takes an insider to break the ring — it’s tighter than the Mafia,” he said. “We’ve got to get into that Washington circle and break it.”
Afterwards, his wife, Patricia Salaz, clad in a striking leopard print jacket and sparkling with jewelry, handed me a clipped local newspaper column by conservative writer Byron York on Gingrich’s ethics battle as Speaker. “This thing says Romney’s a liar,” she said. “He was exonerated, you can keep it.”
As the ballots came in, Brett Skinner, 63, who runs a company that services swimming pools told me he hoped his vote for Romney would help boost the economy with tax cuts — he’s lost 20% of his customers since the recession began. He and his wife, Melinda, a retired history teacher, said they had leaned towards Herman Cain and later Gingrich, but settled on Romney after concluding the various attacks on Bain Capital were “bogus.”
“I look at it as a giant sailing ship, half the crew Democratic, and half the crew Republican,” Brett told me. “We need a captain who can sail without one half mutinying. Newt would throw the Democrats over the side of the boat in chains, while Paul and Santorum don’t have the experience to keep the ship running.”
Romney ended up winning this precinct with 10 votes, with 5 for Gingrich, 4 for Ron Paul, and one for Rick Santorum. However, official results for all the caucus sites are not due to be announced until 7pm Pacific time tonight.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.