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Presidential candidates fall short on Western needs

They're polite enough, the parade of presidential candidates who are passing through Nevada these days. They're always happy to be here.

Republican candidates Donald Trump and Marco Rubio were in Southern Nevada recently, and Democratic presidential hopefuls collided Tuesday night at Wynn Las Vegas for a debate.

Whether Republican or Democrat, the candidates are always unfailingly polite when it comes to the questions they know they'll eventually have to address from Silver State reporters. And it's been a long time since even the least of the office-seekers drew a complete blank when asked their position on Yucca Mountain.

Whether for or against the concept of placing a large nuclear waste repository in Nevada, they manage to produce an answer that ends up being quoted in the next day's news.

And that, for the most part, is the sum and substance of the discussion about issues of great importance in Nevada and the rest of the West. Although climate change is high on the radar for Democrats, the opinions usually come from 30,000 feet instead of from a Western perspective.

When it comes to the obvious need to make great changes in how we address the issue of forest management and wildland fire fighting, there's almost no public appreciation for the importance of this very Western issue.

Presidential candidates appear to know the importance of water law and drought in the West, but you'll rarely hear one speak to the issues with a sense of passion and in any real detail.

But that's the way it is in the West. Our votes are essential, but I don't think our real needs are understood.

The public lands debate is another topic that promises to elicit a polite and unremarkable response from most candidates. The stewardship of vast expanses of land by the federal government is an important Western issue not just in Nevada, where 85 percent of the real estate is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies. The uneven enforcement of the law was a flash point of controversy long before Logandale rancher Cliven Bundy entered the public eye.

As an issue, immigration is a political flame-thrower in Washington, where common sense attempts at reform have been demagogued to a standstill. Although reform is important at some level for every state, the issue takes on an even larger dimension in the West.

It's been costly and controversial, but President Barack Obama's eight years in the White House have essentially created the renewable energy industry in the West. Whether that industry can stand on its own without a foundation of government subsidy remains to be seen, but there's no doubt the West played an integral part in the president's energy philosophy.

What do the new suitors for the White House have in mind for the West? It's frankly almost impossible to tell, as they so rarely depart from their talking points and pet political postures. Hear them a while and you'll be left to wonder whether they can find the West on a map.

But whether it's Trump and Rubio or the recently departed Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Martin O'Malley or Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, too, after their response to the Yucca Mountain question, Republicans and Democrats alike don't seem to relate much to the West. They're focused eastward, and it shows.

The latest crop of presidential candidates don't need to enter an interview wearing a Stetson, but it would be refreshing if even a few offered a substantial vision for issues unique to our side of the Mississippi.

They might even win a few votes in the process.

Let's hope the next president wants what's best for the West — and is willing to expend energy on issues important to us.

— Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0295.

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