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Ray Hagar

Republican Assemblyman John Carpenter of Elko is proud of the influence his northeast Nevada town wields in state politics.

"If it wasn't for Elko, President Bush would have never won Nevada in '04," Carpenter said. "If he hadn't taken Nevada, he might have not won the election.

"Bush lost Clark County by 26,000 votes and he about broke even in Reno and that area," said Carpenter, Elko County's assemblyman since 1987. "But then he got about a 45,000-vote plurality in the rest of the rurals, and that carried it.

"He needed Nevada to put him over the top in the Electoral College," Carpenter said.

Elko and rural Nevada has found new pride as a power player in Nevada politics. With voter registration numbers about even statewide between Republicans and Democrats, largely Republican rural Nevada has become the fulcrum, with the power to tilt the election to the candidate who wins not only in Elko, but in towns like Battle Mountain, Pioche and Pahrump.

"In any close election, there is always someone who makes the difference," said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College and a registered Republican. "Sometimes, it is an age group. Sometimes it's a gender issue. In this campaign, it looks like it is going to be a geographic issue."

Democrats blame John Kerry's loss to Bush in the 2004 presidential election to the fact that he did not campaign in the rurals. It's a reason why Democratic candidates have been so active in the rurals this season.

It's also the reason why President Bush will make his first-ever visit to Elko on Thursday, rallying for the GOP's 2nd Congressional District candidate Dean Heller and incumbent U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

Although Bush's popularity may wane in urban areas of Reno and Las Vegas, he's Nevada's rural rock star.

"This is Bush County," Carpenter said. "There are some people who are upset with him but the overwhelming majority here support him."

Rural impact

The surprising impact of the rural counties on state politics hinges on two factors:

The number of rural voters is low. The urban areas of Clark and Washoe counties have 1.05 million of the state's 1.22 million registered voters. The rest of the state has 164,177, although a third those reside in Carson City or Douglas County, connected to Reno's urban influence.

Only 108,122 registered voters live in Nevada's rural lands, according to figures from the Nevada Secretary of State's Office.

Rural voters vote in large numbers. Although Esmeralda County had the worst voter turnout of any of Nevada's 17 counties during the 2004 general election (65 percent), registered voters in rural counties usually vote in large numbers.

Seven Nevada counties had higher voter turnout percentages than Washoe or Clark in the 2004 general. Douglas had a 92 percent turnout of registered voters, Humboldt County was at 89 percent, Eureka County was at 88 percent and Carson City was at 87 percent.

"It seems everybody turns out," said state Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, whose district covers seven rural counties. "I get calls every night from people who want to go over the (ballot) questions or ask who to vote for.

"When I go around the state for meetings like my public lands committee, we go to almost every community, and the turnout is overwhelming. When you go to Reno or Las Vegas, you don't get that many people. But if you go to Pioche, Battle Mountain, Jackpot or Wendover, it's amazing how many people turn out."

Carpenter said that voting is important to rural Nevadans. "Rural Nevada takes its citizenship and its right to vote as a duty."

The 2004 presidential election crystallized how important rural Nevada can be, experts said.

Vice President Dick Cheney made two visits to Elko. It helped secure the 2004 election for the GOP and left Democrats re-evaluating their game plan of ignoring the rurals, experts said.

"I know for a fact that local Democrats told his (Kerry's) campaign that they needed to go to Elko and Ely and Fallon, and for whatever reason, they didn't take that advice," said Chris Wicker, chairman of the Washoe County Democratic Party.

Democrats have learned a lesson, others said.

"The Democrats are just now figuring it out," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno and a registered Republican. "The Democrats' strategy has been, 'If we can win Clark County, we can win the state.' But the last eight elections, if you count the midterms, has really shown that that is not true."

The Democrats have flooded rural Nevada this season.

Dina Titus announced her gubernatorial candidacy in Gardnerville and has visited rural communities on many occasions.

U.S. Senate candidate Jack Carter has campaigned with his father, former President Carter, in places like Elko and Fallon.

Second Congressional District candidate Jill Derby has trumpeted her rural roots in her TV advertising, noting that she grew up on the Flying Flapjack Ranch near Lovelock. The district is all rural Nevada, since it encompasses most of the state except the urban areas of Clark County.

"John Kerry carried the metropolitan areas and lost the rural areas," President Carter said during a recent trip to Fallon. "And Jack, since he announced last October, has been concentrating on the rural areas to repair that damage."

Some experts say the reason why Bush is coming to Elko is because the Democrats have candidates running for U.S. Senate and the 2nd Congressional District who are popular in rural Nevada.

Derby, now of Douglas County, can identify with rural voters because she is one of them, experts said.

"If Jill Derby doesn't do it this time, it's going to be a long time until we get another (Democratic) candidate this strong," said former Assembly Speaker Joe Dini, D-Yerington. "She has plenty of support. She has worked real hard, and she has done a good job on her advertising. She's got a pretty nice campaign."

Carter, the Democrats' hope in the Senate, grew up in rural Georgia. That gives him an advantage with rural voters, Dini said.

"President Carter has helped his son quite a bit going around in rural Nevada," Dini said. "They're from a rural area and know rural problems."

Many rural Nevadans, however, have lived here for many years. Lack of Nevada roots may hurt Carter in rural areas, Dini said.

Carter moved to Nevada less than four years ago and lives in Las Vegas. He's referred to as a "carpetbagger" in Ensign's TV advertising.

"I think they (rural voters) like Carter, but he's got such an uphill fight," Dini said. "He moved here just a couple of years ago, and that carpetbagging thing is hurting him."

Republicans fear Derby more, and Bush's visit is probably designed to specifically help Heller, experts said.

Heller is ahead by eight percentage points, 48-40, in the latest Reno Gazette-Journal/KRVN-News 4 poll taken last week. Derby's own polling shows her even. Ensign led Carter by 14 points in the Gazette-Journal/News 4 poll.

"Ensign, I think, has it in the bag, but they are most likely including him so that not too much attention is drawn to Heller," Lokken said. "There is no need for him (Bush) to be coming in for Ensign.

"The one that is apparently not in the bag is Heller's race," Lokken said. "Every vote counts. This is one (congressional) district that Republicans didn't have to worry about and now they do."

Herzik said: "I don't know if it tips it to Heller because it appears that he is already ahead."

Derby's rural roots are important, Herzik said, adding, "But a visit by the president will trump that."RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL