HENDERSON, Nev. — A poker player helped rent a billboard, a Mormon spreads the word at root beer socials and prostitutes at a famous brothel turn tricks and donate their customers’ tips — all for Ron Paul.
The 76-year-old, 12-term Texas Republican congressman is banking on a big showing at the Feb. 4 Nevada caucuses to boost his third presidential primary bid. His message of personal liberty, states’ rights and low taxes resonates with voters in the state, where prostitution is legal, gambling is widespread and the foreclosure rate has been the highest in the nation for five years, according to RealtyTrac.
“Go to the Romney campaign and ask ‘How many of your lives have been changed by the philosophy of Mitt Romney?’” Julie Benincasa, 52, of Las Vegas said in an interview as she volunteered in Paul’s Henderson campaign office this week. “People will go, ‘what?’”
“My entire life — just about every spare moment, in one way or another — is promoting Ron Paul’s message of liberty, limited government and sound money,” she said, adding that she sold $1,600 worth of jewelry to donate to the campaign.
Benincasa’s commitment to Paul is matched by a legion of followers who see it as their duty to spread the word, including Arin Hopkins, 46, a dog sitter in a gated community in Henderson who pays for pro-Paul brochures and delivers them door-to-door and Pete Claytor, 49, a Las Vegas electrical union member who converted five of the six Democrats at his job site.
Robert Fellner, 27, a professional poker player and blogger, donated $1,000 of the $3,500 cost of putting a billboard up in downtown Las Vegas, raising the rest of the cost on his website. The billboard touts Paul as the only candidate to predict the economic collapse.
Those avid supporters may give Paul an advantage in such caucus states as Nevada and Maine on Feb. 4 and Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7, where casting a vote takes more of a time commitment than showing up at a precinct and casting a ballot.
On Jan. 31, as the Florida results were being counted, Paul flew into Nevada and kicked off a state tour with a rally at a Henderson casino that drew more than a 1,000 — a number far exceeding Newt Gingrich’s 200-person reception in Orlando that evening.
“We will spend our time in the caucus states because if you have an irate, tireless minority you do very well in the caucus states,” said Paul, who finished fourth in Florida’s primary with 7 percent. “If you have an energized group of people that are working on a campaign and actually believe in something, it is going to work in the caucus states.”
In the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Paul placed third with 21 percent of the vote. Romney and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had 24.5 percent and 24.6 percent, respectively, in the contest, while Gingrich had 13 percent.
In Nevada, Paul’s staffers have been on the ground for more than six months, Carl Bunce, the state campaign chairman, said at the Jan. 31 rally. They have been educating voters both on the candidate and on the caucus process, holding “scores” of training events all over the state, said James Barcia, deputy national press secretary.
Paul is the only candidate with a presence on college campuses here, said David Damore, associate professor of political science at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The only campaign with a stronger ground operation in the state is Romney’s, Damore and other observers said.
“The Paul folks are well-organized, the Romney folks are well-organized and Gingrich is outsourcing to the tea party,” Damore said.
In 2008, Romney won the Nevada caucuses with 51 percent support compared to Paul’s 14 percent. In the four years since then, both candidates have maintained their support bases in the state. Romney has spent more money. As of Jan. 31, he had bought almost twice as much in broadcast television commercials in the state than Paul, according New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising. The other Republican contenders hadn’t spent anything on commercials.
Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, co-chairman of the Romney campaign in the state, said he’s confident his candidate will win, although he wouldn’t rule out Paul’s campaign machine.
“A caucus can always be full of surprises,” he said in a media call on Jan. 31.
One way Paul is targeting Romney is by going after his rival’s base: members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints, who four years ago comprised about 25 percent of Nevada’s Republican caucus-goers. A campaign subgroup called Latter Day Saints for Ron Paul is seeking to convince Mormons that the congressman — and not LDS member Romney — best represents their views about the Constitution.
“Although the country might be ready for a Mormon president, we provide them with the notion that, in terms of constitutionality, that we have the better candidate,” Barcia said in a Jan. 30 interview at the Henderson campaign office.
The most unlikely coalition of supporters, though, is the one the candidate didn’t recruit.
At the Moonlite BunnyRanch, a legal brothel near Carson City featured in HBO’s “Cathouse” series, the most scantily- clad caucus of all was held two weeks ago.
Dennis Hof, 65, the proprietor and self-described “pimpmaster general” of the BunnyRanch and five other Nevada brothels, said he polled all 500 women to see who they supported for the presidency. Last time, they cast their support behind Barack Obama. This cycle their opposition to the roundups of wild horses on federal land near the brothel moved them to Paul.
He said they like Gingrich — they “don’t have a problem with him being a womanizer” — but they think Romney is too square. Paul’s support for states’ rights won them over, he said.
At the BunnyRanch, customers who say they are “Pimpin’ for Paul” get extra attention, Hof said, and some of the women ask clients for Paul donations. Many, like Hustler centerfold Cami Parker, 25, also donate tips.
“I really appreciate the fact that Ron Paul respects states’ rights and individual rights,” Parker said in a telephone interview. “It seems like he really understands our rights to do what we want.”