Confusion Reigns in Nevada

People engaged in Nevada politics hate gambling metaphors. There is life outside the Las Vegas Strip, they reasonably point out. That may be true. But for the Democratic campaigns fast approaching the Nevada caucuses, the situation is so unpredictable that all the casino clichés seem redundant.

Never mind the fact that all their predictions proved wrong in New Hampshire. The problem with Nevada is an entirely new set of circumstances: the state's first early presidential contest, which all three top-tier campaigns are contesting vigorously. The wide-open nature of the competition has left strategists second-guessing the most basic decisions--from the tone they take against their rivals, to the best way to spur voter turnout.

The most recent polls suggest either a 2-point lead for Obama or a 3-point lead for Clinton, with Edwards trailing in third but within the margin of error. However, none of the three campaigns are placing much faith in the polls because they have no idea what turnout model to use.

They have good reason to be unsure. At one recent rally at a junior high school in the northern town of Fallon, Obama's local organizer asked the overflowing crowd how many had caucused before. Of the more than 1,500 people there, just four hands went up.

When Nevada started to position itself for an early contest, the fear among political operatives was that too few voters would turn up. Judging from the size of the crowds that all the candidates are generating, they needn't worry.

To encourage more people to caucus at noon on Saturday, the state party set up several sites close to the Las Vegas casinos. Those sites, which allocate just 6 percent of the state's presidential delegates, have been the subject of litigation by the state teachers' union. That union, which has close ties to the Clinton campaign, filed suit just days after Obama won the endorsement of the powerful Culinary Workers Union.

In public, the Clinton campaign has said it had no position on the lawsuit. But behind the scenes, Clinton's aides have said that caucuses are less democratic than primaries because they discriminate against people who are on the job at the time the caucuses are held. They've also suggested that the special caucus sites unfairly favor people working in and around the casinos. (It's not clear why teachers would find it difficult to vote on a Saturday.)

Bill Clinton went further than anyone inside his wife's campaign this week, suggesting that the lawsuit was justified by a late discovery of a hidden injustice at the special caucus sites, based on the number of delegates allocated to them. In fact, the state party openly debated and voted on the delegate rules--with the approval of the Democratic National Committee--almost a year ago.

"Do you really believe that all the Democrats understood that they had agreed to give everybody that voted at the casino a vote worth five times as much as people who voted in their own precinct," he asked a TV reporter from an ABC affiliate in California. "What happened is that nobody understood what had happened. They uncovered it." (Thursday afternoon, a judge dismissed the lawsuit.) Said Obama spokesman Bill Burton: "We're glad that the Nevada court upheld the Nevada Democratic Party's caucus plan, which encourages voter participation. While the Clinton camp clearly believed the voices of workers should be silenced in service of their perceived political interest, they enjoyed a 25-point lead two months ago and have much of the party establishment in their camp. So, despite their inherent advantages, we are pleased this should be a close and competitive contest Saturday."

Other campaigns suggest that turnout at the special sites will be low, even with the judge's ruling. Saturday is one of the busiest weekends of the year, thanks to the Martin Luther King Holiday on Monday. No matter how close the special caucuses are to the Strip, it can still take a long time for workers to leave the hotels and casinos to find the caucus sites.

Amid the uncertainty, the Clinton campaign has gone on the attack. Clinton has gone after Obama and Edwards on Yucca Mountain--the proposed site of a controversial nuclear-waste storage facility. Clinton is airing a radio ad that condemns Edwards for voting for the site twice--but doesn't mention that he also voted against it once. The ad also suggests that Obama is in the pocket of donors from the energy company Exelon. It doesn't mention the fact that Obama opposes the Yucca Mountain site, or that Clinton herself has taken thousands of dollars from the energy company NRG.

Obama has launched an offensive of his own, accusing Clinton of being on both sides of a controversial 2001 bankruptcy bill in Tuesday's debate. When asked if she regretted her vote, Clinton said, "Sure I do, but it never became law, as you know. It got tied up. It was a bill that had some things I agreed with, and other things I didn't agree with, and I was happy that it never became law." The Obama campaign suggested Clinton's vote was shaped by her large contributions from the financial-services industry--even though she now opposes the legislation.

The attacks and counterattacks may help clarify Nevada's choices in this, its most meaningful presidential caucus to date. Or it could wind up leaving voters as confused as a first-timer trying to master the intricacies of betting on craps.