February 22, 2007
CARSON CITY, Nev. — The Nevada caucus could prompt a national debate on something that many in the Silver State feel is a burning issue: How to pronounce this state’s name.
Politicians, pundits and academics here told me in interviews last week that nothing makes a visiting candidate seem more out of touch here than to mispronounce Nevada.
Residents insist it’s Ne-VAAA-duh (with the “a” sounding as in cat),” not Ne-VAH-duh.
I was sure Gov. Bill Richardson wouldn’t be the one to take this fall. He pronounced it like a Nevadan would at a Monday news conference in New Mexico. (Which was better than me. At least two Nevada contacts had corrected my pronunciation.)
It wasn’t a candidate who made the blunder at Wednesday’s forum for Democratic presidential candidates, however. It was the moderator.
George Stephanopoulos of ABC News offended local ears with his pronunciation of Nevada at the outset of his interview with U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, the first candidate to speak.
Some in the audience actually booed. Dodd corrected him, shaking his finger and saying they pronounce it correctly in Dodd’s home state of Connecticut.
Nevada state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus acknowledged to me last week that the accepted way to pronounce Nevada hereabouts actually is a mispronunciation of the Spanish word for “snowcapped.” But since enough natives mispronounce it the same way, Ne-VAAA-da is correct in the hearts of its citizens.
According to the Associated Press, the Nevada Democratic Party sent materials noting the correct pronunciation to every campaign, with the hope of helping candidates avoid the gaffe.
Could Stephanopoulos have purposely made the mistake to warn other speakers? Was he trying to alert Hillary Clinton, the wife of Stephanopoulos’ former boss Bill Clinton?
Nobody I talked to would buy such a theory. Those sitting near the stage said Stephanopoulos, who apologized, looked sincerely surprised when he started hearing the boos amid the groans.
Playing it safe: Actually, none of the candidates made a major gaffe. Most stuck pretty close to their talking points.
About the closest anyone got to dangerous territory was when Richardson, seemingly in passing, brought up the fact he supported the North American Free Trade Agreement. This in front of a big union audience. Green-shirted members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees filled the auditorium.
However, few seemed to take notice. At least, it didn’t evoke the same reaction as a mispronunciation of Nevada.
Snubbing the press: The Carson City forum had one of the stranger formats I’ve seen. Candidates would take the stage one at a time, give a brief introduction, sit down and answer questions from Stephanopoulos, give a brief closing statement and leave.
Almost all the candidates went directly from the auditorium to a back room of the Carson City Community Center to meet with reporters. (The room officially was called the Media Availability Room, though in political circles such a place is better known as Spin Alley.)
Richardson devoted a respectable amount of time to the reporters there. So did John Edwards, tough he cut it short when a reporter asked him what he thought of the legalized prostitution in parts of Nevada.
The major no-show at Spin Alley was Hillary Clinton. She reportedly had to leave town quickly to attend some function in Las Vegas.
Earlier in the day, she riled some local reporters.
This from Ray Hagar of the Reno Gazette Journal:
“Things got off to a bad start for the assembled media at the NevadaWorking the parking lot: AFSCME had a lunch — actually it started at 10 a.m., so it was more of a brunch — in the community center near the auditorium where the forum was held. Most candidates didn’t take advantage of this to get out and personally greet the AFSCME faithful.
Legislature. Last week, state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, had invited some of the capital press corps into her office for a meet and greet with Sen. Hillary Clinton. But when Clinton arrived, the press was not allowed in at the request of Senator Clinton’s people.”
The campaigns of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack distributed little stickers and pamphlets at tables while Sen. Joe Biden’s people placed sign-up cards for his campaign on the tables.
Richardson’s Nevada team didn’t work the AFSCME lunch, but they were out in force to distribute buttons and bumper stickers at the parking lot of the Nevada Appeal, where the state Democratic Party held a forum-watching party. Richardson and some other candidates dropped by to address the crowd there prior to the forum.
I didn’t notice until much later that the yellow “Nevada for Richardson” button has a little Zia symbol on the bottom.
Searching for Searchlight: Twice on Wednesday, Richardson pledged to come back to Nevada for upcoming debates and forums. “I’ve accepted the invitation to the debate in Reno on Aug. 14 and I’ve accepted the invitation to the debate in Searchlight,” he said. “It might just be you and me, but I’ll be there,” he told the Democrats gathered at the newspaper building.
He made a similar statement about potential crowd size to the reporters in Spin Alley, but added, “That was a joke.”
Searchlight is a community of less than 600 south of Las Vegas. There’s not really a debate scheduled there, but the town has made one major contribution to Nevada politics. It’s the birthplace of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.