10/28/2004 11:00PM

Extensive effort to get five votes

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Sen. John Kerry was in Las Vegas on Tuesday, his seventh campaign trip to Nevada since February. He pointed at a handmade sign in the crowd, "You Again?" and made a joke about it.

Nevada's five Electoral College votes are being heavily courted this time around. President George Bush has been here four times. Vice President Dick Cheney will be in Reno and Las Vegas on Monday for his seventh Nevada visit. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke in Las Vegas last Monday. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, First Lady Laura Bush, and the twins have been here constantly.

For the Democrats, Kerry's wife and daughter have stopped in frequently. John Edwards was here once, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright campaigned in Reno and Las Vegas on Thursday.

Former President Bill Clinton, who had heart bypass surgery seven weeks ago, campaigned in Las Vegas on Friday, which drew this comment from Bush senior political advisor Karl Rove in USA Today: "They had to roll Clinton out of the operating room and onto the campaign trail to help Kerry."

Why all the fuss about a normally Republican state? Political experts say Nevada is in play, an upper-tier swing state that can decide this very close presidential election.

In prior years, Nevada was ignored except for fund-raising trips to solicit money from the casino industry. The 2000 campaign changed all that.

The 2000 election ended up in a split decision. Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote over Republican Bush, 50.99 million to 50.46 million. Bush won the Electoral College, and the presidency, 271-266.

It is widely believed the disputed popular vote in Florida decided the election. Political analysts, however, pointed out the importance of swing states such as Nevada, which Bush narrowly won by a 3 percent margin, only 21,500 votes. If the Democrats had pushed hard and stolen Nevada's four electoral votes, Gore would have won the presidency, 270-267.

The Democrats vowed not to let that happen again, and the Republicans aren't about to give up their Nevada stronghold either.

Nevada gained more importance after the 2000 U.S. census was released. With its population booming, the state was awarded a fifth electoral vote.

The key national issues remain the war in Iraq and the economy. But when campaigners come to Nevada, they better talk nice about Yucca Mountain.

In 2002, Bush signed off on Yucca Mountain to become the nation's nuclear dump site. The Energy Department had approved Yucca based on "sound science."

The Democrats have seized the Yucca issue to sign up record numbers of new voters and get them to the polls early. By Thursday night, more than 200,000 Nevadans had already voted; in 2000, 600,000 voted overall.

So, on Tuesday night, if the general election is nip and tuck and the outcome in Western states will decide the next president, remember Nevada.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up radio show.