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In Uncertain Nevada Contest, Cruz Tests Message for West

In Nevada, Ted Cruz will have another chance this week to make a libertarian-tinged pitch to the voters before turning his attention back to the South.

Senator Ted Cruz speaks about his qualifications as future president during a rally at a packed Sottile Theatre in Charleston, S.C., Friday, Feb 19, 2016.

With the South Carolina primary — and a disappointing third-place finish — behind him, Ted Cruz's campaign is turning west, providing a brief respite from the increasingly high-stakes South and an opportunity to test out a libertarian-tinged message for a new part of the country.

Cruz is going all in on Nevada in the home stretch before its caucuses Tuesday, holding 10 events there over the next three days. The swing began with a rally Sunday afternoon in Pahrump — an unincorporated town an hour west of Las Vegas known for its anti-government zeal.

Victory for Cruz is hard to define in Nevada, a state that has commanded far less of his attention than the sites of the first three early voting contests. One thing is for sure, though, according to the state's Republicans: If Cruz is looking to slow billionaire Donald Trump's momentum, he may want to look elsewhere. 

"Like in South Carolina, the same is true in Nevada: It's a race for second place, not for first," said Greg Ferraro, a GOP consultant from the Silver State who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign.

Cruz is nonetheless giving it a shot, taking the fight to Trump over land rights — an issue that resonates across the West, where the federal government owns large amounts of land. In an interview last month with Field and Stream magazine, Trump expressed some opposition to transferring control of the land to the states, suggesting the federal government may be a more trustworthy guardian. 

"Eighty-five percent of Nevada is owned and regulated by the federal government, and Donald Trump wants to keep big government in charge," Cruz said in a direct-to-camera TV ad released Thursday. "That's ridiculous." 

"You, the people of Nevada, not Washington bureaucrats, should be in charge of your own land," Cruz added in the 30-second spot. "If you trust me with your vote, I will fight day and night to return full control of Nevada's lands to its rightful owners, its citizens."

Cruz pressed the contrast while speaking with reporters before his rally in Pahrump, saying it "makes no sense" for the federal government to own so much land in Nevada. Flagging it as a disagreement with Trump, Cruz reiterated he wants to keep the land out of the hands of a federal government that "doesn't share and doesn't understand Nevada values."

Despite Cruz's unambiguous offensive against Trump, there is a sense of uncertainty surrounding the contest in Nevada, where reliable polling has been hard to find. What few surveys have been taken have found Trump leading the field by anywhere from 13 to 26 percentage points. 

Adding to the mystery is the fact that this is the first year in which Nevada has a contested caucus since it was given early voting status in 2008. Then and in 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney faced little competition in the state and easily prevailed. 

This time around, "anything can happen," said Robert Uithoven, Cruz's Nevada state director. "I think anybody who tells you they know how it's going to turn out doesn't understand it." 

At Cruz's Election Night party Saturday in South Carolina, Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe briefly spoke with reporters about the next contest, predicting Nevada would see record turnout like the first three early voting states did. Roe said the electorate in Nevada is not as quirky as some may think, suggesting its transient population produces a "national blend" of primary voters that mirrors the rest of the country. 

Cruz and Rubio are regarded as having the best ground games in the state, though Uithoven said Cruz's two field offices, in Las Vegas and in Reno, and five paid staff shy in comparison to the infrastructure Rubio has. Cruz's boosters in Nevada are still expressing confidence they can come out on top with a get-out-the-vote operation that will be criticial in a caucus setting that has a modern reputation for low turnout.

"It rivals Hillary Clinton's — it's that good," said Nevada Assembly Majority Whip Jim Wheeler, who has endorsed Cruz. 

Like he did in New Hampshire, Cruz is hoping to build a libertarian-leaning coalition, a task that continues to be easier with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky out of the race. On Thursday, Cruz won the endorsement of Carl Bunce, who was serving as Paul's Nevada senior adviser and was a top staffer in the Silver State on the presidential campaigns of Paul's father Ron, a libertarian icon. 

Cruz is additionally seeking to woo Mormons, who make up a sliver of the state's population but have disproportionately participated in its caucuses. To reach members of the religion, Cruz has on his side U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, whom Uithoven joked was a kind of "trifecta": He not only belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but has roots in Las Vegas and membership in the House Liberty Caucus. 

Perhaps Cruz's most notable endorsement in the state is that of Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a rising star of the anti-establishment right with a famous pedigree — his grandfather is Paul Laxalt, the former U.S. senator from Nevada. While Cruz has not held a campaign event in the state for more than two months, Laxalt has been stumping for Cruz across the state for the past three weeks. He also stars in an ad released Saturday that calls Cruz "what conservatives in Nevada right now are hungry for."

In addition to Laxalt's backing, Cruz's supporters in Nevada take pride in the fact that many of the state lawmakers backing him were leading opponents of a tax increase Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval pushed through the Legislature last year. The increase, the largest in state history, was meant to help fund education.

"The state legislators that are supporting ... Rubio were also supporters of that tax increase," Uithoven said. "That gets noticed by the base of our party."

Cruz alluded to the tax battle shortly after taking the stage in Pahrump, bringing it up during his usual remarks on politicians "saying one thing and doing another." The people of Nevada, Cruz said, "know something about politicians who campaign promising a tax cut and then get into office and pass a massive tax increase."

Much like in South Carolina, the candidate who could be Cruz's closest competition Tuesday is Rubio, who grew up in Las Vegas and attended an LDS church there. With an eye on notching his first victory in a nominating contest, Rubio moved quickly Sunday to show strength in the state, rolling out the endorsements of U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, both of whom backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush until he dropped out of the presidential race a day earlier.

The Florida senator is claiming momentum after edging out Cruz for second place Saturday in the South Carolina primary. But Cruz's supporters in Nevada say the state's independent-minded voters tend not to put too much stock in the horse race — or at least they hope so after a Palmetto State contest in which Cruz fell short of expectations, raising the stakes for the round of southern primaries that come a week after Nevada's caucuses.

"Momentum is Nevada really doesn’t seem to resonate all that much," Wheeler said. "We’re a very, very independent state. We’re true westerners out here. We do what we want."

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