'Electability' Turned Most Nevadana To Kerry

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Many of the Democrats who sent John Kerry to a big caucus victory in Nevada started out supporting another candidate but gravitated to the Massachusetts senator as the party's best bet to defeat President Bush.

Leaders of Nevada's Democratic Party credited the "anybody but Bush" philosophy with producing an unexpectedly large turnout at precinct caucuses across the state Saturday and a 63 percent vote for the party's front-runner.

"I was for Howard Dean but I feel now Kerry will have a better chance to get elected than Dean," said Jean O'Connor, 75, Reno, who got involved in Democratic politics as a volunteer on President Kennedy's campaign in 1960.

"When Dean got ahead, the media dinged him so much, I reluctantly changed. But I like what Kerry stands for, the fact he is a veteran," she said.

Bob Fulkerson, a liberal activist who works as executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, also started as a Dean backer.

"It looks like Kerry has the best chance of beating George Bush, which is what we need to do," said Fulkerson, who pointed to the crowd of 1,500 who jammed Washoe County's caucuses at Wooster High School as evidence Bush's job is in jeopardy.

"This is the first time in northern Nevada where a political event has a bigger turnout than a high school football game. When that happens, it means something is in the air," he said.

Mark Ogulnick, 50, Boulder City, said he picked Kerry over Sen. John Edwards.

"I like John Edwards, but I think John Edwards is the future. Right now, John Kerry is the man," he said.

Edward Vento, an Edwards supporter, urged a unified approach.

"What we have here is a house, a family. We need to keep it that way all the way to November no matter who gets the nomination," Vento said in Reno.

Patti Bakker carried a sign at the same caucus that said, "I am Dean's special interest." She said she is "not excited about Kerry" but conceded she would vote for him if he is the nominee.

"I think so many people are afraid our country and our world aren't going to weather another four years of a Bush administration," Bakker said.

Washoe County Democratic Party spokeswoman Pam duPre said anti-Bush sentiment is strong in Washoe County.

"Part of our message now that we have voted is that we're Democrats first and we all have one thing in common as far as the presidential race, and that is to defeat George Bush," she said.

Republican leaders remain optimistic Bush will carry Nevada's five electoral votes in November after narrowly winning the state in 2000.

"At the end of the day, it won't be hard for Nevadans to see that Sen. Kerry and the Democratic message of protest and pessimism are out of sync with this state," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

Both parties have targeted Nevada - split about evenly between Democrats and Republicans - as a battleground state.

"President Bush would not be president today if it were not for Nevada," Ed Gillespie, the chairman of Republican National Committee, said during stops last week in Las Vegas and Reno.

"We won those electoral votes by an average of only 18 votes per precinct," he said. "We are determined to increase that margin this time."

Nevada Democratic Chairwoman Adriana Martinez said the 6,000 Democrats at the caucuses in Las Vegas was "unbelievable."

"If this is an indication of the energy the Democrats have brought to the table, it's no wonder the Republicans are afraid," she said.

Washoe County Democratic Chairman Chris Wicker said the Reno crowd was even more impressive because the county has more registered Republicans than Democrats. He predicted "almost 100 percent" of those who attended Saturday will back whoever wins the Democratic nomination.

Wicker believes Democrats' opposition to Bush is stronger than the hatred many Republicans showed for President Clinton.

"With Clinton, I think it was personal. They hated Clinton because he fooled around in the White House. Today, people are disgusted with Bush because of his policies," Wicker said.

Not all Democrats are ready to climb on Kerry's bandwagon.

"I will not vote for Kerry," said Jeffrey Moulder, a backer of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich who chased after Sen. Harry Reid on Saturday to criticize the senator's speech that declared the race was down to Kerry, Edwards and Dean.

Likewise, Kucinich backer Jeff Knutson criticized a speech in support of Kerry by former Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, who closed to loud applause by saying: "Are you ready to take the White House? I say, `Bring it on.'"

Knutson said, "We do not need our leaders to bellow, `Bring it on.' We need our leaders to talk about the issues."

"It's time that being electable means you represent the best interest of the voters," he said.