Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The biggest little swing state

RENO — If the American presidential election hinged on Ben Brittner's history class at Bishop Manogue High School, the country could blame the new kid from California for forcing a tie.

Thirteen students voted for John McCain during a mock election this month at the Catholic school in Reno. Thirteen others, including Bay Area transplant Brittner, voted for Barack Obama.

"It split straight down the middle," said the 15-year-old, who moved with his parents and brother from Los Gatos to Reno this summer. "I thought it was going to be a lot more on the McCain side."

As the McCain and Obama campaigns this week ramped up what has been an epic, months-long courtship with northern Nevada voters, one teen poll may be no better bellwether than a bet at the Harrah's casino downtown. Washoe County, of which Reno is the hub, remains at a nail-biting standstill, and what happens here in the next 13 days could swing Nevada's five electoral votes blue or red. A poll released this week by InsiderAdvantage had both candidates tied with 47 percent statewide.

Some believe an influx of Californians is partly responsible for turning Washoe County into a place where, as of this month, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans for the first time in 30 years. Others say the new Nevadans are as independent and as difficult to pigeonhole as the neighbors they have moved in next to, and it must be some other variable — the troubled Nevada economy Advertisementor sophisticated voter mobilization drives — that have made this region such an uncertain battleground.

"I think (the Californians are) a factor, but I think there's a real fundamental shift beyond that," said Jeff Giertz, a Reno-based spokesman for Obama. "People are just sick and tired of what's going on."

Ben Brittner's father, Kevin, is a staunch Republican and McCain supporter who loves hunting ringtail pheasants in the alfalfa fields of far northern Nevada. His mother, Julia, is a staunch Democrat struggling to find a local public radio station to compete with the nonstop conservative talk.

Both born and raised in the Bay Area, they have relished the excitement of participating in their first real battleground election — their family of four sat down together to watch every presidential debate. But when it comes time to vote, they will cancel each other out.

"Reno feels very conservative," Julia Brittner said. "But I think there are a lot of people like me out here, a lot of Democrats, and that's why I think it's going to swing for Obama. We may not be standing out there and we may not have our Obama signs on the lawn, but we're going to show up in the polls."

Tax records show that hundreds of Bay Area residents move to Washoe County each year, most of them hailing from Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties. They come for a new job, a different culture or a more affordable place to retire or raise children.

But interpreting that migration as a "liberalization" of northern Nevada would be incorrect, said Tim Roumph, a retired detective in the Alameda County Sheriff's Office who moved to the Washoe County suburb of Spanish Springs two years ago.

"I would say most people I know of who have moved from the Bay Area are conservative people," said the 60-year-old Roumph.

Roumph and his wife, Karen, a registered Democrat raised in San Francisco, are voting for McCain, and so are all the other former Californians they know. Of the 10 new homes on their hillside cul-de-sac, seven were originally purchased by Bay Area families.

"We wanted out of California," Karen Roumph said. And they found their quiet paradise — a house, sold to them for about $500,000 two years ago, that overlooked a gorgeous desert valley, home to quails, antelope and giant bugs they had never seen before.

But down the hill from their house, at a fast-growing commercial junction, the same Nevadan suburb is starting to resemble a newer kind of California. It was just last week that Bethany Lund, another former Californian, opened a new ice cream and sandwich shop where the floor is made from recycled rubber, the cups are corn-based, the spoons are "eco-spoons" and the customers who travel by bicycle get a 25 percent discount. The shop, so far, has been a neighborhood hit, and Lund said she and most people she knows are for Obama.

As Nevada's political atmosphere ratcheted up Saturday with the start of early voting, present or former Bay Area residents were everywhere. Berkeley College Republicans worked the phones at the McCain-Palin headquarters, Obama supporters flooded across the border in the hundreds to help with canvassing, and newly settled Bay Area transplants experimented with the novelty of being able to vote early at a supermarket.

By Tuesday afternoon, 11,533 registered Democrats had already cast ballots in Washoe County and 6,317 Republicans had cast ballots, according to the county registrar. Republicans also pointed out that more Republicans than Democrats had requested absentee ballots, narrowing the gap.

On Monday morning, Bay Area transplants were among about 1,200 people who crowded the Truckee Meadows Community College to watch former President Bill Clinton make a 45-minute case for Obama and exchange banter with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Fewer than 24 hours later, with the bright pink glow of the 27-story Atlantis casino looming above them, Bay Area transplants were also among those who lined up before dawn to catch a glimpse of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

"I do like the fact that I can come to Republican rallies here," said Laury Macauley, a former Orinda resident who moved with her family to Reno this summer.

Palin stormed the stage of the Reno-Sparks Convention Center to a cheering throng of about 2,500 people.

Norma Kilbourn, whose family moved from Moraga to Reno this summer, was thrilled when Palin made a surprise introduction of singer Lee Greenwood, who sang his trademark "God Bless the USA." Palin told the crowd that the song brought a lump to her throat, and then launched into a multipronged attack on Barack Obama.

For Kilbourn, the message was music to her ears. It was that same song, sung here so proudly, she said, that caused her to pull her children out of public schools in Contra Costa County two years ago because the school had changed the words to "All Bless the USA." After about 20 years living in Contra Costa County, Kilbourn said she is thrilled to live in a place with values more aligned to her own.

At the upscale Caughlin Ranch neighborhood southwest of downtown, a cycle of early voters ebbed and flowed this week in a smooth pattern poll workers said was tied to a local football game schedule

Mark Fox, head basketball coach at the University of Nevada, Reno, waited in a small supermarket voting line that snaked past a pile of 12-pack Bud Lite boxes.

Fox wasn't going to share his vote — an admission that, in Reno, could alienate half his fan base no matter which candidate he preferred. But his view on the battle for Washoe County was one shared by many of his neighbors — he likes the attention.

"You see a lot more true campaigning if you live here, which is to everyone's benefit," Fox said.

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