LAS VEGAS — A federal judge cleared the way Thursday for creation of nine at-large Democratic casino precincts on the Las Vegas Strip for Saturday's caucuses, but the decision did little to calm the internecine battle between supporters of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
U.S. District Court Judge James Mahan sided with the state Democratic Party and rejected a challenge by Clinton supporters and the Nevada State Education Assn. to ban the at-large Strip precincts.
They argued in court that the at-large precincts would give casino workers an unfair advantage over non-Strip employees who also are scheduled to work during the midday caucuses.
The lawsuit was filed Jan. 11, just after the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 -- Nevada's largest -- endorsed Obama. The at-large precincts will make it possible for thousands of casino workers to take part in the caucuses during breaks in their shifts on the busy holiday weekend.
"There is a group of workers that are being treated preferentially by the state party and that runs contrary to the principles for which the Democratic Party stands," Lynn Warne, the teachers union president, said in a statement after the ruling. "We're disappointed, but we will go on, and thousands of our members will attend the caucuses on Saturday."
The case spotlighted the hard-edged tone the campaign has taken here.
Polls -- which are often unreliable for caucuses -- show Clinton, of New York, and Obama, of Illinois, in a statistical tie, with former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina close behind.
Obama, in San Francisco, lauded the decision and described the legal challenge as a response by the Clinton campaign to the strength of his candidacy, although he did not mention his rival by name.
"Some of the people who set up the rules apparently didn't think that we'd be as competitive as we were and are trying to change them last-minute," he said.
The Clinton campaign issued a statement that simultaneously distanced itself from the legal challenge and embraced it.
"Make no mistake -- the current system that inhibits some shift workers from being able to participate, while allowing others to do so, would seem to benefit other campaigns," the campaign said. "More importantly it is unfair. We also are concerned with recent news reports about voter intimidation tactics that would further discourage some Nevadans from participating on Saturday."
The campaign was referring to complaints by some within the culinary union that they were denied caucus information after telling low-level union organizers they would not be supporting Obama.
One of them, Cruz Aponte, a housekeeper at Caesars Palace, said in an interview that she and co-workers were taking their breakfast break Tuesday when a union representative approached them with a list of names and their caucus sites.
"He said, 'I'm going to tell you where your caucus is Saturday so you all can then vote for Barack Obama,' " Aponte said Thursday. When she told him she would be caucusing for Clinton, he refused to tell her where her caucus site was, she said.
Another union member reported witnessing a similar scene in another hotel.
Adam Bozzi, spokesman for the Edwards campaign in Nevada, said they had received no similar complaints.
Pilar Weiss, the culinary union's political director, dismissed the complaints, saying that information on caucus sites is available at all of the hotels and that the union has mailed information to members regardless of whom they might be supporting.
Union head D. Taylor argued that former President Clinton's comment earlier in the week that the at-large precincts were unfair was itself an act of intimidation.
"Having, if you want to get down to it, the former president of the United States saying there should not be at-large caucuses, that's pretty intimidating," Taylor said at a news conference.
Times staff writers Joe Mathews in Greenville, S.C., Maria L. La Ganga in
San Francisco and Mark Z. Barabak in Las Vegas contributed to this report.