It's mid-morning, and Republicans are caucusing all over Nevada. They've been doing so since 9am.
In Starr Valley, halfway between Elko and the wild-west town of Wells, in an epic snow covered landscape of ranches and soaring mountains, 43 Republicans are caucusing in the Starr Valley Progressive Club. It's a huge turnout for a region this remote. Many of the caucus-goers have driven scores of miles to the old wooden building, with a small Mitt Romney sign outside and a herd of wooly cattle across the icy street to cast their votes.
The people here, a goodly number of them Mormons, have a keen sense of their region's history. Many of their grandparents and great grandparents homesteaded the region in the nineteenth century, and stories of epic cattle drives "before the railroads" provide fodder for familial lore. Most of the men and women here live in the same houses their ancestors built and ranch the land as they did.
"My family homesteaded this area right about the turn of the century," says Sheriff Dale Lotspeich, who is in charge of signing in the voters from his precinct. "My parents and I still live in the family homestead 300 acres. We run about a dozen head of cattle and fifty head of sheep. People typically here are against higher taxes, are very self-sufficient, don't believe in big government. We're very down to earth. One of the big things we care about is the right to bear arms. Family values are very strong."
Unlike the Democrats, who have a traditional form-and-reform caucus process in Nevada, with candidate supporters continually coalescing into new groups until "viability" has been reached for candidates, the Republicans have a simple ballot process. As the suns burns off the morning fog over the wilderness outside, they talk about party policies for the first half of the meeting, from abortion to tax cuts, from the sanctity of marriage to gun control, and then move on to the real business at hand choosing the man they want to be their presidential candidate.
They discuss the merits and flaws of each candidate for half an hour, place their ballots in an envelope and wait for volunteers to count the votes.
Not surprisingly, since Romney's the only Republican candidate to really woo Nevadans, and, in addition, since eastern Nevada has a large Mormon presence, two thirds of the caucus-goers choose Romney.
I've no idea whether Starr Valley will be representative of the rest of the state, in particular Las Vegas though the last polls released did show Romney had a sizeable lead statewide and the Associated Press is already calling the race for Romney. Huckabee is seen as being honest and somewhat charismatic here, but voters seem to have been turned off by his lack of knowledge about the state. Thompson's campaign has been so lackluster, few in rural Nevada support him even though they generally agree with his conservative positions. McCain curries favor for being a westerner; but, despite his win in New Hampshire, he doesn't seem to have gotten enough traction here. People think he's too liberal, too soft on push-button conservative social and economic issues they care about. Ron Paul they like him, many of them an awful lot, but they're pretty certain he's not electable. As for Giuliani big city, east coast; need we say more?
We'll know more in a few hours. Right now, I'm off to the Democratic caucus in the tiny city of Wells.
-- Sasha Abramsky.