LAS VEGAS (AP) - Nevada is positioned to become a defining force in the 2012 GOP presidential race, with the Silver State scheduled to host the nation's third contest behind Iowa and New Hampshire next year for the first time.
Prospective nominees Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin all stopped in Nevada in recent months and state party leaders describe the trickle of fundraising dinners and private rallies as a preview of the campaign frenzy they pray will unfold here later this year.
"Our state is beginning to pick up some traction in the presidential race," said former Gov. Robert List, Nevada's Republican national committeeman. "It's been a little slow to build because Nevada is relatively new to this role as an early state. We are learning the ropes as we go forward here."
But despite Nevada's plum Feb. 18 caucus date, its role as a kingmaker is far from guaranteed.
The Silver State's inexperience in a line-up long dominated by Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as challenges that have hounded the Nevada GOP for years, could trip up the state's ability to take advantage of its third-place caucus.
"They don't know what they are doing because they have never done it before," said Nevada Republican National Committeewoman Heidi Smith.
Nevada secured its covetable 2012 calendar position in a compromise between national Democrats and Republicans who picked the increasingly diverse state to represent the nation's shifting demographics. The agreement yielded South Carolina the nation's fourth contest and allows other states to begin counting their nominee votes in March.
A fistful of states are threatening to steal Nevada's spotlight. GOP party leaders in Florida, Michigan and Minnesota aren't eager to be left behind and want to push up their contests. If they proceed, Iowa and New Hampshire could also move up their dates, leaving Nevada behind.
Adding to Nevada's troubles is the lazy pace of the 2012 race. The field is still evolving, and with less than a year until the caucus, none of the potential candidates have spent more than a few days in Nevada.
One of the more consistent Nevada wooers is Cain, the little-known former Godfather's Pizza CEO who has paid multiple visits to the state since January.
"There is a huge tea party base in Nevada," said spokeswoman Ellen Carmichael. "There is just such a strong conservative base."
Nevada emerged as a new frontier of presidential politics for Democrats in 2008, with then candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton crisscrossing the desert in a bid to score big in the state's first early caucus in January 2008. It was fifth in the nation then.
Republican candidates, however, mostly skipped the state, much to the chagrin of state party leaders who wanted a strong role in national politics. The snubs were not entirely unexpected. It was a demanding year for candidates, with 30 states holding contests by early February.
Still, more than 116,000 Nevada Democrats showed up at 520 precincts around the state in 2008, a stark jump from 2004, when nearly 9,000 voters turned out for the presidential caucus. The effort was fueled by Sen. Harry Reid, who pushed to move Nevada's caucus toward the beginning of the year and helped organize the political machine that ultimately elected Obama and re-elected Reid in 2010.
Republicans, however, drew only 44,000 voters at 113 precincts during their 2008 caucus. It didn't help that the vote was non-binding.
"We went after it like gangbusters for more than a year," said Jill Derby, who served as Nevada's Democratic chairwoman at the time. "There wasn't the energy on the Republican side."
The Nevada GOP was also somewhat hindered by divisions between ultra-conservative voters in the rural north and more moderate Republicans in the state's urban south. Nevada Democrats, in contrast, are largely centered around Las Vegas, where most of the state lives.
"They really have a very powerful organization in place," List said of the Nevada Democratic Party.
He said Republicans hope to emulate Democrat's 2008 efforts by reaching out to student and community groups that lean toward the GOP. Republicans also will start hosting mock caucuses in April and will travel across the state to train volunteers and voters.
"You are going to see a huge growth in enthusiasm and momentum," List said.
In Clark County, home to Las Vegas, GOP Chairman Frank Ricotta said his organization grew from 200 to 900 members since 2008.
"Things are exponentially building," he said.
The caucus can be a costly expense for state party leaders, who rent venues to host voters and must organize volunteers and staffers across the expansive state.
Nevada Democrats said the party spent more than $2 million on its 2008 caucus effort. Smith said Republicans spent roughly $400,000.
Democrats raised $8 million the year of the 2008 caucus, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Republicans had $5.5 million.
For the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats had $9 million. Republicans received $3.4 million.
With Obama all but assured his party's nomination in 2012, party leaders said the looming caucus remains a priority because it will drive excitement for the general election and offers down-ballot candidates an opportunity to meet with voters.
"We are very grateful for the position that we have in the nominee calendar," said Zack Zaragosa, the party's executive director.
Nevada's yearning for a national voice isn't just a cry for attention. A successful caucus can influence a general election and a state's political leadership for years to come, said Kenneth Fernandez, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"You just get more attention from the candidates and the media and so when you get more attention, those presidential candidates come and meet and greet with the mayor and the senators and the congressional members and Speaker of the Assembly and you have rallies and there are people who are 18 and get excited," he said. "The amount of attention we got in 2008 was unprecedented and amazing. It just really was."