LAS VEGAS — THIS IS NOT a city for the faint of heart. The one-armed bandits here do more financial damage on a given night than the muggers in Manhattan. The gaming tables stretch across more football fields -- the current American standard of measure -- than the entire NFL.
For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, tourists who visit this environmental nightmare spend their time making hard decisions and hoping for good luck. People come here to put their money where their mouth is.
But in politics, the true residents of Nevada have learned what solvent citizens must in this risky state. They have learned to hedge their bets. When they go to pull the lever in a polling booth, the house rules allow Nevadans an advantage the rest of us don't have. In statewide races, they can vote for ''None of the Above.''
NOTA has been a perennial candidate in this state -- the Harold Stassen of Nevada politics technically called ''None of These Candidates '' -- since 1976. It was originally introduced by then-assemblyman, Don Mello, as a way to fight apathy in the post-Watergate climate.
''We were having a hard time getting people to come out to vote,'' remembers Mr. Mello, who is now retired. ''I came up with the idea of letting them go and vote 'no.' I took the phone book and started calling people and asking them what they thought about the idea. I didn't find anybody who didn't like it.''
Mr. Mello's original idea was that NOTA would run on every ballot and if it won, there would have to be another election, with presumably a new set of options. The state legislature didn't go for that, but NOTA did win a place on the ballot. Says Mr. Mello, ''If it hadn't been for Richard Nixon we wouldn't have gotten it at all.''
Fifteen years later, NOTA remains, in the words of Robert Elliott, the deputy secretary of state for elections, ''a protest vote.'' To mangle grammar and politics, ''None'' cannot actually win. But, as Mr. Elliott puts it, ''Politically it would be a complete embarrassment to lose to 'none of the above'.'' Indeed the genial deputy counts among his blessings the fact that he is an appointed official.
NOTA actually topped the primary ticket of both parties in the state treasurer's race four years ago. It comes in second with a regularity that is the envy of oddsmakers. In 1980, in the Democratic presidential primary NOTA came in behind Jimmy Carter and before Ted Kennedy. In the recent gubernatorial primaries here, it took second on both tickets.
Alas, NOTA hasn't had as much success in getting out the vote. Only 58 percent of the voting population in this transient, growing state is registered. Only 37 percent of the registered actually turned out for the recent primary.
But the popularity of NOTA is not to attract new voters. It appeals perhaps most to confirmed, addicted, can't-help-ourselves voters who want some way to register our horror.
These days Las Vegas has nothing on the rest of America in an era when politics is described as a gamble and covered like a horse race. Democrats and Republicans seem as similar philosophically as black and red, and the voters have the feeling the deck is stacked.
The old conservative hostility to government and politics is rapidly being matched or even topped by mainstream disgust. Even the stalwartly left-wing magazine, The Nation, recently ran a piece favoring ''none of the above.''
People aren't voting for outsiders this year; they're voting against insiders. There is already a sort of NOTA vote. Why not the real thing? If NOTA wins, call another election.
In my own dyspeptic state of Massachusetts, party stalwarts last Tuesday turned out in favor of Bill Weld, a New York-born Republican Reagan-Bush supporter and John Silber, a Texas-born Democratic Reagan-Bush supporter. The last remaining liberals are left to choose a governor between the aristocrat and the autocrat. Give me nobody.
For years, my own perennial candidate has been ''the lesser of two evils.'' Now there's NOTA. I'm not much of a gambler even when surrounded by cards, chips and slots. But I'll bet Nevada's got a winner in the high-stakes game of politics. None of the above. Let it ride.