April 2, 2014 Updated: April 2, 2014 at 7:22 pm
LAS VEGAS — Backed by one of the GOP's most powerful benefactors, Las Vegas has emerged as an early leader in the multi-city fight to host the next Republican National Convention.
The competition is far from over as Republican officials weigh nagging concerns about unveiling the GOP's next presidential nominee in a place commonly known as "Sin City" in the shadow of Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. Political leaders from competing cities such as Dallas, Denver and Kansas City openly question Las Vegas' image, while promoting their own network of billionaire donors as they jockey for any advantage they can find.
But all eyes are on Las Vegas, where a handful of prospective presidential candidates met privately with Adelson at his Venetian resort casino over the weekend.
"Sheldon wants it," said former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a senior advisor to the Las Vegas bid. "It's a business proposition. A city wanting this convention is going to need real money behind it."
Among the world's 10 richest people, the CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. has made no secret of his willingness to put his vast fortune behind the effort. He and his top advisers are playing an active role in the early planning and outreach. And he is not alone. The casino industry, including the leaders of the Caesar's Palace, MGM Grand and the Wynn, is largely unified behind the city's 2016 bid.
The Republican National Committee on Wednesday narrowed the field of possible convention cities from eight to six, eliminating Columbus, Ohio and Phoenix from a list that now includes Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas, Kansas City, Mo., and two others in Ohio — Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Republican officials plan to pick the host city this summer.
The RNC wants the conference held in the early summer of 2016, roughly two months sooner than has become the norm. Officials are focused on each city's transportation and hotel plans following a 2012 Tampa convention in which many participants were forced into hotels an hour from the convention site. But money is the dominant concern.
RNC officials who were forced to divert limited resources toward the last two conventions insist they cannot do so again. Most cities expect a convention price tag of between $55 million and $60 million.
Dallas is considered a major player in the competition, in part because of its coalition of wealthy donors with ties to the Bush family and the oil industry. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is among a crowded field of prospective 2016 candidates. The city has already gathered $41 million in donor pledges, according to Dallas committee CEO Phillip Jones.
Touting a broad coalition of support in Dallas, Jones discounted the value of Adelson's support when asked about the casino magnate's role.
"We have several powerful billionaire figures supporting our bid," Jones said, noting that Dallas is Number 4 on the global list of billionaires after New York, London and Moscow. "If they want to play the billionaire game, we win."
He also highlighted image problems for Las Vegas and Denver, which is in a state that recently legalized recreational marijuana.
"No one's going to get into trouble having their meeting in Dallas," Jones said. "There are some cities we're competing with that have some significant messaging challenges."
Democrats are paying close attention.
The Democratic-allied research group, American Bridge, has already promised to send up to three dozen operatives with video cameras to catch Republican convention-goers in embarrassing moments — even coming and going from casinos or strip clubs. The group has created a "Sin City" website — www.sincitygop.com — to air the video.
Denver's political leaders have also raised concerns about Las Vegas, while promoting its own recent experience with the 2008 Democratic National Convention, relatively mild summer climate and wealth of hotel rooms.
"There's a lot of places you can get in trouble in Vegas," noted Owen Loftus, a spokesman for the Colorado Republican Party.
The Denver effort is chaired by Molson Coors chairman Pete Coors and includes conservative billionaire Phillip Anschutz.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James, a Democrat leading the bipartisan group to win the Republican convention, highlighted the city's central location and community approach. The billionaire conservative donors, Charles and David Koch, based in nearby Wichita, Kan., have not played a role in the city's bid, although organizers hope to attract their support.
"Dallas is big. It's got its millionaires. Hooray, I'm happy for them," James said. "And Las Vegas has got all of its other stuff — and it's very well-known, and very popular for those who want to partake."
Kansas City, he said, is full of "people who have good solid Midwestern values."
Meanwhile, in a law firm conference room several miles from the Las Vegas strip, a confident List said he expects his city to be a finalist.
The rift within the state GOP is improving, he says, following a 2012 libertarian takeover of several party leadership positions. And he says the city's infrastructure has no rival: The city has more hotel rooms, conference space and world-class entertainment than most of the competing cities combined.
"We're proud of this city," List said. "We can't wait to show it off."