(CNN) - Nevada is the next major stop along the road to the White House.
The Republican presidential candidates will face off Tuesday in Las Vegas at the Western Republican Presidential Debate, put on by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference.
Silver State Republicans may play a crucial role in choosing the next GOP presidential nominee, thanks to their spot in the primary and caucus calendar. Nevada's currently scheduled January 14 caucus will come early in the voting season, after Iowa and New Hampshire, and before South Carolina and Florida.
The debate, at the Venetian Resort along the Strip in Las Vegas, kicks off a four day conference of Republican leaders from 13 western states and three territories.
"This year, Westerners will have an exciting opportunity to host the first Republican Presidential debate in the Western United States, providing us with a distinct and active voice in our 2012 Presidential Election," says Jon Porter, chairman of the Western Republican Leadership Conference.
Porter, a former three term congressman from Nevada, says the conference "is designed to educate, mobilize, and empower Republicans from our region. Additionally, the WRLC will serve to spotlight the specific issues facing the west and underscore the importance of our Nevada caucus in determining our next Republican Presidential nominee."
In 2008, Nevada joined Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as one of the states to kick off the long road to the White House. Democrats focused on the state, with CNN holding a presidential debate in Las Vegas in November 2007, and the major candidates, such as then Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards all campaigned in the state
But while the Democrat's caucus was binding, the GOP contest was not, and became an afterthought. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ended up winning the contest, thanks in part to backing by the many Mormons who live in Nevada who decided to support their fellow member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Last year Republican state party leaders changed the rules to make the 2012 caucus results binding, meaning that delegates attending the Republican National Convention in Florida next summer must stick with the candidate choices determined by the caucus results.
"Three years ago, the Republicans didn't do anything until too late, eventually piggybacking on the Democrats' early caucus. Last year, they copied what the Democrats did in making the caucus binding, which many realized, because of the early date, will force candidates to come here," says Jon Ralston, who's considered by many to be the dean of Nevada political reporters.
Ralston says that this time around Romney, who's making his second bid for the nomination, appears to be the favorite in Nevada, but that businessman, former Godfather's Pizza CEO and radio talk show host Herman Cain and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas could be factors. So could Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was endorsed last month by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
Nevada was smack in the middle of the political spotlight in 2010 midterm elections, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's difficult but ultimately successful re-election bid. Thanks to next week's debate, the state's position in the primary and caucus calendar, and the new binding status of the caucus, Nevada should be firmly in the political spotlight in the battle for the GOP nomination.
- Follow Paul Steinhauser on Twitter: @PSteinhauserCNN.