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Republican presidential hopefuls converge on Las Vegas this weekend — but won’t stay long

Despite being 1 of 4 early voting states, Nevada has gone largely ignored by GOP candidates

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Former Unite Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition on Nov. 19, 2022, in Las Vegas.

John Locher, Associated Press

Several Republican presidential candidates will visit Las Vegas this weekend, speaking at a major donor conference on Saturday. But instead of using the cross-country trip to campaign through Nevada, an early voting state, most candidates will quickly return their attention to Iowa, South Carolina or New Hampshire.

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual summit, held at The Venetian in Las Vegas, is anticipating a sharp uptick in attendance and attention following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Eight leading candidates for the GOP presidential nomination are expected to attend, providing an up-close chance to interact with major Republican donors and Nevada political followers.

“It’s like the Iowa State Fair,” Adam Jones, a Las Vegas-based political consultant, said. “It’s an exciting week for folks to see all the presidential candidates coming to town.”

The difference? Iowa has become center-stage for Republicans during the 2024 presidential cycle, while Nevada has largely been an afterthought.

Nevada — one of the four early voting states in the 2024 contest — has historically been a key proving ground for Republican candidates. This year, though, as former President Donald Trump maintains a historic lead on his GOP challengers, campaigning has been hyperfocused on the trio of other early voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Only Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have held campaign events in Nevada this year.

This weekend in Las Vegas, Trump is the only candidate with a public event scheduled — a “commit to caucus” rally on Saturday. No other candidates have announced events during their visits to Las Vegas. Nikki Haley will be back in South Carolina by Monday morning. And Ramaswamy may have the tightest schedule of them all: he will host an event on Friday at 8 p.m. in Ames, Iowa; speak in Las Vegas on Saturday at 9 a.m.; and be back in Des Moines Saturday evening.

“It shows that the candidates are more focused on Iowa than on the delegate battle,” said Zach Guymon, a Republican strategist in Las Vegas. “If they wanted delegates, if they wanted movement, they’d stay in Nevada. The only reason they’re in Nevada is for donors.”

The ongoing disinterest in Nevada may be connected to the state Republican Party’s new process for selecting a nominee. Earlier this year, the Nevada GOP announced it would vote for a Republican presidential nominee during caucus meetings, to be held on Feb. 8, 2024, instead of the primary election, scheduled for Feb. 6. Participation in the primary election would disqualify candidates from earning delegate votes in the caucus.

The candidate field is split over what route it will take. Several candidates, including Trump, DeSantis and Ramaswamy, registered for the caucus and will vie for the delegates there. Others, like Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence, have registered for the primary, forfeiting the opportunity to win delegates from Nevada.

Trump maintains a huge lead among likely Nevada caucusgoers. 65% say they’d vote for him, according to one CNN poll. Critics of the Nevada GOP’s decision to hold a caucus say it will guarantee a Trump victory.

Because the caucus is two days after the primary, winning the Trump-less primary could help candidates avoid wasted energy in Nevada and focus on other states, Jones said.

“You can steal a headline and move on to the rest of the country,” he said. “It’s a momentum thing.”

But other strategists, like Guymon, argue that candidates’ money would be better spent in Nevada, where their ability to reach voters dollar-for-dollar is higher than in Iowa or other early states. “Nothing (Trump’s challengers) do is about winning the race — it’s about getting headlines,” Guymon said. “Sadly, they’ve conceded the state to Trump.”

While at the Republican Jewish Coalition summit, presidential candidates are expected to vow support for Israel and denounce antisemitism. And while the annual event always draws large crowds, this year’s event — in light of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war — is expected to be particularly somber. The New York Times reports that an empty Shabbat table with over 200 seats will sit in the middle of the room, to remember the hostages taken into Gaza. Additional security has been arranged to mitigate possible threats. And in addition to the American national anthem, attendees will sing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.

“I would venture half the room, if not more than half, has relatives who are in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces),” said Ari Fleischer, a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board, to the Times. “They don’t want to see a single weak knee, elbow or joint. They want to see support for a nation that’s in trauma against the modern-day equivalent of Nazism.”

Republican candidates expected to attend the summit, held Friday through Sunday, are Trump, DeSantis, Haley, Ramaswamy, Scott, Pence, Chris Christie and Gov. Doug Burgum. Other notable attendees include RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, Sen. John Thune and Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Members of the coalition’s board are split over their support for GOP presidential candidates. The late Sheldon Adelson, who died in 2021, was Trump’s largest donor during his 2020 reelection effort. An analysis of super PAC and campaign donations in August showed Haley as the most popular candidate among coalition board members. Other board members have supported DeSantis and Scott.