LAS VEGAS -- With no state income tax, a palpable mistrust of the federal government and a what-happens-in-Vegas attitude on social issues, Nevada's Republican presidential caucus on Saturday would seem to be a contest that libertarian-leaning, small government-loving Texas Rep. Ron Paul could win.
But it's not that simple. One key reason that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is favored to win on Saturday is that about 25 percent of the voters are expected to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Four years ago, exit polls showed that 95 percent of them supported Romney, their fellow Mormon, which helped him easily win the Nevada caucus with 51 percent of the vote to Paul's 13.7 percent.
Undaunted, Paul's campaign this time is aggressively courting the LDS community, sending teams of supporters to canvass neighborhoods near Mormon temples. On their own, church members are talking up Paul in their tightly knit communities and appealing to their family-focused culture by passing out copies of "The Ron Paul Cookbook."
It's part of Paul's coalition strategy here to mine several constituencies, from Latinos to veterans. There's even outreach to Nevada's sizable home-schooling community and food co-ops. In a caucus where Nevada GOP officials expect roughly 50,000 people to vote, no voting bloc is being overlooked
"I expect (Paul) to do well here because it's a very libertarian political culture -- it's not a conservative one," said Ted Jelen, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and until recently the editor of the academic journal "Politics and Religion."
Paul could help double his support from four years ago by slicing a bit of Romney's substantial Mormon support, Jelen said.
While both candidates have been organizing in the state essentially since their 2008 runs, Jelen said, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has little campaign infrastructure in the state.
Some of Paul's LDS supporters, like Las Vegas resident David Isbell, said the entry of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman into the GOP presidential race caused many Mormons to think twice about automatically supporting Romney.
Suddenly, said Isbell, there was a second Mormon in the race -- at least until Huntsman dropped out shortly before the South Carolina primary in January.
Like other church members, Isbell checks in with several families each month on personal and spiritual issues. If he is comfortable enough with them, he begins to talk about Paul. He's even handed out copies of Paul's recipe book. What really resonates, said Isbell and other LDS supporters of Paul, is how the Texas congressman has been consistent with the issues while Romney's position has changed on abortion and same-sex marriage, among others.
"There's a lot of consternation in the community over (the choice)," said Isbell, 29, former political director of the Republican Party in Clark County, where the majority of Nevada's voters reside. "We want to support one of our own. But once they hear where they all are on the issues, they listen."
Now, Paul's supporters see an opening. Mormons view the Constitution as a divinely inspired document and no GOP candidate still in the race mentions the sanctity of the Constitution as frequently as Paul.
"As a Mormon, when you meet someone who shares your faith, you have an instant bond," said Aaron Anderson, a Las Vegas real estate agent who supported Romney four years ago but now backs Paul. And if a politician is Mormon, "you assume they share your values."
But Anderson said it is Paul who "better espouses the freedoms that are spelled out in the Constitution."
Paul's deputy Nevada state director James Barcia hopes this "novel approach" to reach out to the LDS community could work in several Western states with sizable Mormon voting blocs, including California.
At an event Wednesday in Las Vegas, Paul drew cheers for his plan to help distressed homeowners in Nevada, where more than 60 percent of the homes are worth less than what is owed on them. He reiterated his proposal -- first made last fall -- to offer a series of tax credits to help distressed homeowners.
"We cannot solve our problems by doing more of the same thing that created our problems." Paul said Wednesday. "If you live beyond your means and live on borrowed money, eventually you will live beneath your means."
(Contact Joe Garofoli at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)