The campaign spotlight this weekend is on Nevada, where dueling elections could confuse GOP voters

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Though Nevada is a pivotal early state on the 2024 election calendar, it’s gotten much less attention than leadoff Iowa and New Hampshire.

Not this weekend.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates are in Las Vegas for the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting, which has taken on greater significance this year because of the Israel-Hamas war. Former President Donald Trump followed a speech for that group with a rally one mile south of the Strip, his first visit to Nevada since the state party voted on rules for a caucus that rivals and some others within the party have said could confuse voters if not make it easier for him to secure the party's nomination.

In front of about a thousand people who packed a country bar, Trump briefly implored voters to “commit to caucus” — the slogan of the event — but mostly focused on his longstanding grievances about the 2020 election, the southern border, his rivals and indictments.

With the support of the former president's allies, Nevada will have a primary election on Feb. 6, as required by state law, and caucuses two days later that are run by the state party. That setup has drawn criticism from within the Nevada GOP about potential confusion and concerns that the state party is attempting to tilt the scale for Trump.

A state-run ballot will be mailed to every resident before the primary; Nevada law requires universal mail ballots for primary and general elections. But the party-run caucus meetings will decide who wins Nevada's delegates for the nomination. The caucuses will depend on the party apparatus and the candidates' campaigns to educate voters.

“I hate it for our voters because of course they’re going to be confused,” said Will Bradley, a member of the Nevada Republican Party Central Committee. “But I respect that I’m in the minority, and I got outvoted. So I’ll do what I can to help the caucus succeed.”

Trump is trying to woo potential Nevada caucusgoers at events similar to earlier ones in Iowa.

Trump's Nevada state director, Alida Benson, moved to his campaign in July after serving as the state party's executive director. The party chairman, Michael McDonald, was as a false elector for Trump in 2020, when allies of the then-president tried to nominate Republican voters to the Electoral College in states that Democrat Joe Biden won.

McDonald has long argued that caucuses favor grassroots support and boots-on-the-ground campaigning. He pushed for the caucuses despite a state law requiring a presidential primary, because the Democratic-controlled Legislature refused to consider Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo's election-related proposals, most notably a voter ID requirement.

When opening for Trump at the country bar, McDonald chastised Democrats in the state Legislature for not passing voter ID requirements, as well as the news media for “saying Republicans are too stupid to know what day to vote on.”

He described the caucus as more secure than primaries, and urged the crowd to make a plan for the evening of Feb. 8.

“Feed the kids early, take that day off, you’re not going to the movies,” he said. “You’re showing up to your assigned locations — which you’ll be getting pretty soon — and you’ll go out and vote for your candidate.”

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott opted for the primary. Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum will compete in the caucuses. Former Vice President Mike Pence announced Saturday in Las Vegas that he was ending his candidacy, though he'll likely still appear on the primary ballot after filing with the state.

“I know that this change was engineered for certain reasons, but you know what, life’s not fair,” DeSantis said Saturday morning at an event organized by his allied super PAC, Never Back Down, and local Republicans. “I’m going to fight wherever I need to fight. I don’t care.”

Some developments have indicated disagreements over caucus organizing, which is now largely in the hands of the 17 county Republican parties. The Clark County GOP vice chair, who would have been in charge of organizing the Las Vegas-area caucus sites, resigned last month. Bradley and other Central Committee members in Las Vegas said they have only received one email from the Clark County GOP mentioned the caucuses in the past month.

Nearly 430 miles north in the rural mining county of Elko, GOP Chairman Lee Hoffman is wondering how to set up caucus sites that are more than 100 miles from the county’s hub of 20,000 people.

Every registered Republican will receive a mail ballot for the primary through the state’s universal mail ballot law. Educating the county’s Republicans about the caucuses two days later will prove more difficult for Hoffman.

“All I can say is, we have a lot of work to do between now and the time the caucus comes to educate our Republican voters on the process, getting it organized in terms of locations and so on,” Hoffman said. “That’s going to take some effort.”

Back in Las Vegas, speaking to the packed crowd at the Trump rally, McDonald said showing up to the caucus would send a message to Democrats in the state Legislature, and the rest of the country, about the effectiveness of voter ID and paper ballots.

“You give us a fair election, I’ll give you the next president of the United States — Donald J. Trump,” he said.

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Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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Follow Stern on X, formerly Twitter: @gabestern326