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In Nevada, Democrats duel to the bitter end

Aside from some nods to Yucca Mountain and a few other Western issues, it's been politics as usual.

January 19, 2008|Mark Z. Barabak and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

LAS VEGAS — Putting a Western stamp on the presidential campaign, Nevada voters are expected to flock today in record numbers to the state's earliest-ever caucuses, delivering a boost to either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama.

The Democrats, with a win apiece, dueled across the state Friday in a final burst of campaigning on the eve of their party's third nominating test. The race here, like the first two, appeared exceedingly close.

Obama, the winner of Iowa's caucuses, traveled 1,200 miles: from Las Vegas to Reno, then to Elko, then back again. The Illinois senator intensified his criticism of Clinton, accusing her of distorting his record and changing her positions for political expediency.

"It is easy to be for policies that help working families when it's popular on the campaign trail," he told more than 1,000 people packed into a gym at the University of Nevada in Reno. "But the American people don't want a president whose plans change with the politics of the moment."

Clinton, who avenged her Iowa loss by edging Obama in New Hampshire, traced a similar path Friday, visiting the same three cities as well as fast-growing Henderson.

The New York senator seized on a recent Obama interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, in which he called former President Reagan a transformative figure and said the GOP, for a time, was "the party of ideas" challenging conventional wisdom.

"That's not the way I remember the last 10 to 15 years," Clinton told employees at a small Las Vegas printer. "I don't think it's a better idea to privatize Social Security. I don't think it's a better idea to try to eliminate the minimum wage. . . . I don't think it's a better idea to shut down the government, to drive us into debt."

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who once counted Nevada as a good bet for an early win, has seemingly faded. He hoped to jump-start his campaign Jan. 26 in South Carolina and campaigned elsewhere Friday.

Nevada, a state with a strong labor movement and a booming Latino population, was granted an early voting slot by national Democrats hoping to introduce a fresh voice into the nominating process. (Nevada Republicans are also caucusing, but their impact was diminished as most candidates focused on South Carolina, which holds its GOP primary today.)

For the most part, the experiment succeeded.

"Usually, the candidates fly over Arizona, Utah and Nevada on the way to California," said Mike Sloan, who led Democrats' caucus fundraising drive. "For the first time, they've been required to do more than that."

Clinton and Obama practically pitched their tents in the high desert, arriving soon after New Hampshire voted and leaving Nevada for only brief excursions, mainly to California, which votes Feb. 5. They made an unprecedented effort to court Latinos, endorsed gun-loving Nevadans' right to bear arms and competed with Edwards to be the most adamantly opposed to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, 90 miles from Las Vegas.

"If the caucuses accomplished nothing else, it accomplished that," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was key to bringing the early vote to his home state.

To a large extent, however, Nevada merely served as a backdrop for the argument Clinton, Edwards and Obama have waged for months, over judgment and experience, over who can best wind down the war in Iraq, and over which of them is better equipped to lift a slumping economy.

"A few national issues have been framed with, say, a slightly Western tilt," said Eric Herzik, head of the political science department at the University of Nevada. "But besides Yucca Mountain, which is an easy issue for Democrats, they haven't talked about water, they haven't talked about land, they haven't talked about the role of the federal government in Western states."

This being Nevada, a state that prides itself on keeping the West a bit wild, Democrats also witnessed a brawl between labor unions over the caucus rules. The fight was settled when a judge decreed that nine casino precincts could be operated to accommodate workers on the Las Vegas Strip.

The legal scuffling was seen as a fight between backers of Clinton, including much of Nevada's political establishment, and Obama, who won the support of Las Vegas' Culinary Union, the state's biggest and most influential labor organization.

Clinton alluded to the fight Friday, suggesting that some supporters were being intimidated from caucusing on her behalf. The union denied any such harassment.

The caucuses will operate as Iowa's did. Republicans, who begin meeting at 9 a.m., will cast ballots in a straw poll that has no bearing on the allocation of presidential delegates. One of the few candidates to visit, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigned for two days this week. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also stumped here, playing to the broad libertarian streak.

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