Democrats Woo Labor, Minorities in Nevada
Record turnout is expected for Saturday's Democratic caucuses in Nevada, where candidates are hoping to show their clout in the party's first western nominating contest and the first state contest with a significant minority population.
Four years ago, fewer than 10,000 Democrats showed up — about 2 percent of those who were eligible. So this year, Democrats Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards know they are vying for a lot of first-time caucus-goers.
Political scientist David Damore of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said coming after those votes in Nevada is not easy because the state does not have a tradition of intense political involvement.
"It's a transient place," Damore said. "The iconic places in Las Vegas are full of a bunch of tourists. You're not going to spend your time there."
He said Democratic politicians have developed a formula: visit a union hall, walk through a neighborhood and hold a rally in a high school gym.
Desert Pines High School was the setting for Clinton's rally on Tuesday in a working-class neighborhood of Las Vegas.
"There are still a lot of people in the state who aren't quite sure what the caucus is," she told the crowd. "So, you've got to get out and talk to as many people as possible: your friends, your family, your neighbors. And come to those caucuses on Saturday morning."
Candidates have also been busy courting organized labor, which plays a larger role in Nevada than in either of the two previous contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The state's biggest union, representing casino employees, has already endorsed Obama, triggering a court-fight over casino caucus sites. But there is no guarantee rank-and-file members will go along with that recommendation. Carla Jackson, a maid at the MGM Grand casino, is a precinct captain for Clinton.
"She won my support every day," Jackson said. "Ever since Bill [Clinton] was in there, I had them on my side."
Obama, meanwhile, is attracting some of the same kind of crossover support that helped him win in Iowa. Greg Wood showed up at an Obama town hall meeting in the town of Henderson.
"I thought it was very good. I'm a Republican and I came in thinking I needed to vote for John McCain but I think I've changed my mind," he said.
Former North Carolina Sen. Edwards also hopes to make a strong showing in Nevada, where one newspaper poll shows a tight, three-way race. Edwards stuck to another part of Damore's formula on Wednesday night, speaking at the headquarters of the carpenters' union in Las Vegas.
"I am so proud to be in this union hall and to stand with the men and women of organized labor who helped build the middle class in this country and who are going to help reestablish the middle class in America when I'm president of the United States," he said to cheers.
Nevada's caucuses will also be an early test of Latino voting power, in a state that's one-quarter Hispanic. Latino leader Ruben Kihuen, a member of the state Legislature, was heavily courted by all the Democrats. He ultimately endorsed Clinton but said the close contest with Obama and Edwards has been healthy.
"Regardless of who ends up getting the nomination, this is all good for the party," he said. "There are people being energized who have never been energized before."
There are now slightly more Democrats registered to vote in Nevada than there are Republicans. The party hopes that will turn this Republican red state to the Democratic blue column in November.
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