On a street lined with near identical beige McMansions, it isn’t hard to find the one we’re looking for. SUVs are clustered outside, and the front yard is staked out with McCain-Palin signs. We change into more suitable attire behind the car and approach the house like spies.
We’re about to gatecrash a private Republican debate party in the wealthy Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, 12 miles out from the neon blaze of porn and poker.
Inside, about 15 middle-aged white Americans, still dressed for work, mill around the giant plasma nibbling microwave pastries. On the walls are several framed photographs of the White House and above the fireplace, two candles wrapped in plastic and Washington toile paper. Frank, balding, red polo tucked into shorts over loafers, hopes that "John can land some punches".
In the kitchen, smart-casual ladies hover around the sink. Valerie, a 30-something Italian-American, clutches a handbag pooch in a custom McCain dog jacket. "The mainstream media will condemn him no matter what he does," she complains loudly.
Within five minutes it’s pretty obvious we’re no-one’s friend of a friend. The party’s host, Dave, political director of the Clark County Republican Party, clocks us straight away. A dark, hefty figure, he ambles between the kitchen and the living room, makes a point of ignoring us, and lowers his 200 kilogram frame into his leather recliner. His resemblance to Tony Soprano in looks and manner is uncanny.
As moderator Tom Brokaw introduces the debate on Fox News, the first of three news crews arrive. With the camera trained directly on us, we stare straight at the screen, and try to look Republican. Brokaw briefs the candidates on the foreign policy/economic focus, prompting hoots from around the room. "Could they make it any easier for Obama?" they shout derisively. "Ask him why he’s friends with terrorists, whydoncha?"
The adherence to stereotype is striking, yet no more so than a week earlier when we attended a VP debate party in San Francisco, where clean-cut, multi-racial Democrats mingled under floor-to-ceiling Buddhas at a hip organic restaurant, grazing on vegetarian spreads in white-cushioned booths.
From the outset, the second debate meanders along pretty much like the first. Righteous catcalls about Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and ACORN fade as it becomes clear that McCain isn’t going to "take the gloves off" as promised. Not everything McCain says wins agreement from the assembled. When he introduces his bad loan buy-back scheme, the suspicion is palpable. "Don’t know how you’re going to make that one work buddy," says George, who prefers Palin for President. McCain’s mere mention of climate change draws instant, angry dismissals. "Don’t fall for that fairytale," exclaims George to a chorus of boos.
"The climate isn’t changing! When will people get that?" cries a young man in an ill-fitted suit, leaving the room in exasperation. From upstairs, the muffled cries of what sound like a mutant child and a dog being tortured prompt alarmed glances.
Regardless of the topic, when Obama is speaking this audience hears only, "we’ll spend lots of money, and raise taxes to do so". When Obama presents his policy to reduce dependence on foreign oil, one gentleman from the back retorts, "Just put more air in your tyres", and when the camera cuts to Michelle Obama, the group heckles energetically, "I’m surprised they let her out tonight". Dave is mostly silent, receiving press releases from both campaigns on his Blackberry, and generally looking as menacing as possible.
Pride of place is reserved for the two grand old ladies in the room, doubtless matriarchs with impeccable long-service records with the Party. Propped on the two-seater lounge, one sports a red jacket, white blouse and blue slacks, an American flag brooch glittering on her lapel. Although not four feet away from us, neither of them meets our eyes all night.
Most of the guests are, however, disarmingly friendly. We’re offered free wine and snacks, and eventually welcomed by Dave’s girlfriend Valerie, a former staffer with the Bush Administration, like we’re long lost friends.
The debate finishes with the room claiming victory. They think McCain looked presidential, while Obama looked junior. As the local news crews pick off guests for commentary, we hide behind the food with Richard, the suited climate change denier. We ask him how he thinks McCain will fare in the election. "Well, the way things look now, Obama will win, sad as I am to say it," he says.
He cites the Democrat registration drive as one of the key reasons. In Nevada, there are 76,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. In 2004, registration numbers favoured the Republicans, and Bush won by 21,500 votes. Moreover, McCain finished third in the primaries here behind Mitt Romney and libertarian Ron Paul, and Hillary-style resentment is still strong with Nevada’s Paul supporters.
Over the last century, Nevada has voted for the winner in all but two presidential elections, and is currently one of a dozen battleground states. Richard pauses, reaches for his Jack Daniels and says "But hey, anything could happen," then promptly spills it all over the floor.
Back in downtown Vegas, we steer past Valerie’s recommendation – the gauche Venetian hotel ("owned by a great Republican") – and check in to the cheap Circus Circus, at the seedy end of the Strip. Handing our credit card to Chad, the 25-year-old working the front desk, we tell him where we’ve been. He shakes his head. "God, I think they’ve done more than enough damage. I’m for Obama."
En route uptown for dinner, our fat, white, ageing taxi driver is warm and friendly. "I really, really like Sarah," he enthuses. "I just don’t know what’s wrong with all those feminists. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s classy, and she’s super successful. I really, really like her."
And in a city like Las Vegas, there’s no accounting for taste.
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