Nevada's Political Gamble

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani is canvassing door to door on an uncharacteristically chilly and cloudy Saturday in a Las Vegas subdivision of stylish ranch houses about two miles east of the Strip. Stumping for Sen. Hillary Clinton ahead of Saturday's Democratic caucuses, she listens to voters whose demographics and pet issues make it clear the campaign isn't in Iowa or New Hampshire anymore. A Hispanic casino buffet server talks about her precarious mortgage. An Anglo retiree gives her an earful about the planned nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. And a mother of three vents about school overcrowding in this fast-growing area, and then asks Giunchigliani—twice—to explain how this newfangled caucus thing works. "This is all so new to us," notes Denise Formander, 34.

It's new to everyone in Nevada. The state has been a presidential battleground in general elections in the past, but for the first time the caucuses are front and center in the Democratic presidential selection process. Indeed, in a state more accustomed to attention for the antics of high rollers and celebrities, the Jan. 19 event has transformed a political nonevent into what Las Vegas Sun political columnist Jon Ralston dubbed "the little caucus that could." As a result, Giunchigliani's constituents are working hard to get up to speed. "This is the most exciting moment in Nevada political history," Giunchigliani said. "We just have to make sure we get it right."

Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have crisscrossed the state in recent days, appealing to constituencies that were nonexistent in the first two major battlegrounds. A third of Nevadans are black or Hispanic. It's the nation's fastest-growing state, rapidly urbanizing around Las Vegas, where voters are preoccupied by growth issues like school overcrowding (in Clark County a new school opens every month to relieve the pressure), the availability of drinking water and the credit crunch in this fast-rising housing market. The race is considered too close to call. Obama leads Clinton 32-30 in a Reno Gazette-Journal poll released Monday, the only one taken since the New Hampshire primary. John Edwards, who has focused on South Carolina but will attend Tuesday's MSNBC debate in Las Vegas, trailed with 27 percent. That represents a significant tightening; in early December polls showed Clinton with a double-digit lead.

This is the first time Nevada's caucuses may have a real bearing on the broader nomination fight. Moved to the early part of the primary calendar largely by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the caucuses will be held in about 1,750 precincts statewide. Democratic Party activists hope for a turnout of 45,000 voters, or 10 percent of the state's registered Democrats. The prior record was a mere 9,000 in March 2004, when it was held long after Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had sewn up the nomination and was an affair so small that all of Clark County caucused on one high-school football field. Voters here are eager to show the rest of the country that their votes matter too. "This is our chance to show we're about more than showgirls and slot machines," says Marta Fuentes, 26, who met Hillary Clinton as she canvassed a working-class Hispanic neighborhood.

With a week to go, Giunchigliani patrolled the neighborhood, visiting homes of possible Clinton voters. She makes sure they know where the caucus precinct site is located, at a local school. The issues she hears about are the same whether she is walking through the largely Hispanic neighborhoods of apartment buildings off Maryland Parkway or in the more upscale Paradise Palms subdivision of half-acre lots—believed to be the first subdivision in Clark County. Giunchigliani says that while the economy is generally healthy, voters here are worried about high gas prices, the mortgage mess and whether the nation's flagging economy will hurt local tourism.

The Nevada Republican Party is also holding caucuses on Jan. 19, but the leading GOP candidates have largely ignored Nevada and none has announced any plans to visit. The only campaigning of note was a round of push-poll phone calls received by hundreds of Nevadans on Sunday that asked leading questions designed to encourage support for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who came in third in the Gazette-Journal poll, with 16 percent. Sen. John McCain of neighboring Arizona was in the lead, with 22 percent of the vote, followed by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani at 18 percent. Despite a large Mormon population in the state, Mitt Romney polled a disappointing fourth.

Many Democrats think the early caucuses will help Democrats win Nevada in the fall. "We're miles and miles ahead of where we would normally be in January in terms of organizing for the fall," party spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said. "I don't think you can put a price on what this caucus has done for the Nevada Democratic Party." Others are less sure that the caucuses will help Democrats in November. "I don't think the two are connected at all," said University of Nevada at Reno political scientist Eric Herzik. He expects the state to be competitive, as "we are a true swing state" that has voted for the presidential winner in every election since 1912, with the exception of 1976. The state's 1 million registered voters are evenly split: 40.5 percent Democrats, 39.7 percent Republicans, with almost a fifth independent or Libertarian.

Nevada voters are seeing another facet of early-primary politics: nasty political infighting. Last week the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), the state's teachers union, filed suit challenging the creation of nine "at-large" precincts in meeting spaces in Strip casino resorts designed to enfranchise hotel employees who can't leave work to caucus in their home precincts.

While the NSEA hasn't endorsed a candidate, some of the group's top officials are Clinton supporters, so the lawsuit is seen as an effort to suppress the turnout of members of the state's largest union, the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which endorsed Obama last week. The union's secretary-treasurer, D. Taylor, is furious. "I never thought we'd have people in the Democratic Party try to disenfranchise women, people of color and large numbers of working people in this state," says Taylor. "I am sure every single elected official in Nevada will renounce it, and so will the Clinton campaign. If there's not renouncing of it, then there's an agreement with it."

So far, none have done so, although U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, who represents Las Vegas and endorsed Clinton, said, "If I were the Culinary, I'd be madder than a hatter right now too." Clinton has made only perfunctory statements about allowing the courts to decide. But former president Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife in Henderson, Nev., on Monday, said he supports the lawsuit. Court action on the lawsuit is expected Wednesday.

"If you didn't believe me that this internecine Democratic warfare would be as nasty as any in state annals, this is more evidence," Ralston wrote in an e-mail blast in which he broke the news of the lawsuit late Friday. "By Jan. 20, friendships, alliances and relationships will be destroyed by this high-stakes game."

Nevada's Political Gamble | U.S.