LAS VEGAS — Republican voters across the West have three big issues on their minds: Washington is maddeningly intrusive and distant. Illegal immigration remains an emotional, intractable issue. And the sputtering economy seems more dismal than ever.
Western Republicans are frustrated, but they also know that solutions will not come quickly, and there's no obvious favorite in the Republican nomination derby to challenge President Barack Obama.
"We're having a healthy debate," said Carol del Carlo of Lake Tahoe, Nev., the state Republican Party secretary.
The Rocky Mountain and Southwestern states are being watched closely because they're crucial to winning the GOP nomination, and they're volatile. Nevada is the region's bellwether, since it's scheduled to hold the West's first presidential caucus, now set for Jan. 14, but that date could shift.
Western states are hard to handicap, partly because their populations have exploded in recent years with people moving in from all over the country. They also lack the political organizations and ingrained partisan voting habits often prevalent in East Coast and Midwestern states.
Western Republicans this year are sizing up presidential candidates based on three big issues — immigration, economics and big government.
Businessman Herman Cain won a straw poll of GOP activists meeting in Las Vegas this week. Of the 552 people who participated, 30.8 percent preferred Cain. Next as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, won won the 2008 Nevada caucus easily, at 29 percent, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with 20.3 percent. Fourth was Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 9.8 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was a distant fifth at 3.62 percent. All but Romney addressed the crowd; Cain got the biggest ovation.
Perry, whose state shares a 1,254-mile border with Mexico, has tried to inject a dose of realism into the immigration debate. He's talked tough about border security while trying to show compassion via his support for in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants.
He's drawn political fire for that view, but veteran Western analysts argue that there is no politically convenient way to discuss immigration.
"The solution lies somewhere in the middle. We need to have conversations, but they're drowned out by both sides of the spectrum," said Alex Garza, vice chairman of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce.
When Garza urged comity at a conservative voters' meeting in Las Vegas earlier this week, he got little sympathy.
"They've come to take our jobs. They're invaders, they're not immigrants," said Dan Hickey, a Las Vegas physician's assistant.
"If they love our country so much ... let them come here the right way," added Jeri Taylor-Swade, editor of a conservative Las Vegas newspaper.
Voters want to hear more. Perry's tuition stance disturbs them. They want Romney and Cain to be more specific. Paul's supporters like his insistence on no amnesty and no citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born in this country.
Just show us how you'd fix the mess, voters say.
"Mostly I'm for Romney," said Peggy Zinski of Reno. "But I'm waiting to find out what he's going to do on illegal immigration."
The economy is an equally compelling issue. Nevada's September jobless rate of 13.4 percent was by far the highest state total in the nation, and there's little optimism it will shrink much soon.
Everyone has a story. Julie Benincasa, a Las Vegas travel agent, lost a 700-employee client during the economic slump. Randy Neal is vice president at Sage Construction Co. in Las Vegas. The firm has lost half its business in the last two years.
Overall, "things are pretty bad," said Mike Chamberlain, executive director of the Nevada Business Coalition, a nonprofit lobby.
Voters here aren't eagerly embracing any specific economic remedy. There are pockets of support for Cain's 9-9-9 plan, which would scrap the current federal tax code and impose a 9 percent tax on businesses, individuals and sales.
But the respected nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that 84 percent of taxpayers, or those earning less than $200,000, would pay more under Cain's plan.
Cain "could explain things a little better," said Las Vegas businesswoman Ruuda Pender. Lorianne Kaserman, a Stateline, Nev., activist, said that "Herman Cain brings a sense of competence and is a calming factor, which people need now," but she prefers Romney.
Some praise Romney for his business acumen. "His experience really helps," said Las Vegas retiree Joan LeMere. Others laud Paul's efforts to try radical new approaches, such as his plan to eliminate five federal Cabinet agencies and cut $1 trillion in spending during his first year in office.
Yet almost all Republicans agree on one general principle: Government is too big and expensive, and Washington cannot possibly understand the needs of people thousands of miles away.
Less government resonates loudly with Robert Fellner, a professional Las Vegas poker player who's seen his income drop since it became illegal to play online. Playing at casinos is not as lucrative, he said.
"If you believe in free markets and free people," he said, "you'll like Ron Paul."
The candidate who can best blend these concerns about the economy, immigration and big government will probably win the West — as long as he or she can fulfill one other big GOP priority.
"You could make a case for all of the above. They all have conservative values, and they all care about jobs," said Mendy Elliott, a Reno political consultant. "But at the end of the day, I want to pick the person who can beat Barack Obama."
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