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Rolling the Dice: Nevada Looms Large for Democrats

There are only 33 convention delegates at stake in the January 19th Democratic Caucuses in Nevada out of 4051 total.

But the fact that the contest occurs so soon after the tests in Iowa and New Hampshire and before the South Carolina (1/26 for the Democrats) and Florida (1/29) primaries, means that the winner can either claim to be on the comeback trail or crow about continued momentum.

For both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, that means flexing their organizational muscle in order to get Nevadans to the caucus sites. To that end, Barack Obama has begun to pour resources and staff into the state in an effort to match the Clinton machine:

* Illinois Sen. Barack Obama opened three new offices, two in the Las Vegas suburbs and one in Winnemucca, a tiny rural outpost. His campaign now has 10 offices here, more than twice the number of any other candidate. The campaign says this is a key sign of organizational strength heading into the Jan. 19 caucuses: More office space means more volunteers on more phone lines.

* Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have begun television advertising. David Bonior, campaign manager for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, said Edwards will be on television soon. Clinton is also advertising on Spanish language radio; Obama had been before taking his ads down, though his campaign says he’ll be back on the Spanish-language airwaves soon.

* The Edwards campaign has finished adding two dozen staffers recently. The campaign had pulled Nevada staff earlier in the year and sent them to Iowa. – The Obama campaign has created a Republicans for Obama group here and has pledge cards from more than 600 Republicans.
All for 33 delegates and the momentum a victory in this tiny state would bring. This is the consequence of the front loaded primary season where the goal must be to win early and often. And if not, to right the ship as quickly as possible.

The latest poll in Nevada is 3 weeks old and therefore does not reflect the recent movement nationally by Obama. It shows Hillary with an 8 point lead over the Illinois Senator (34-26%) with Edwards a distant third at 9%. I imagine the candidate’s own polls show a much different race which is why Obama has suddenly gotten very interested in the state and why Edwards has also begun to devote additional resources to his caucus effort.

Sandwiched between the New Hampshire primary and Nevada Caucus is the black hole of the Michigan primary which is scheduled for January 15. Refusing to bow to pressure exerted by the national party and change its primary date to conform with party rules, Michigan has suffered the ultimate sanction by losing its total delegate representation to the Democratic Convention in Denver – for the moment. A ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court in November allowed the primaries to go ahead but that didn’t stop the Democrats from trying to prevent candidates from campaigning in the state or appearing on the ballot. To date, only Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel are on the Michigan primary ballot. The Democratic National Committee similarly sanctioned the Florida party as well for holding their primary early.

So no one really knows at this point if the primary results apportioning delegates in Michigan will matter when it comes to the race for President. Can the Democrats risk alienating party members in 2 of the 10 largest states by denying them a voice in choosing a nominee? The DNC appears to be dead set on getting control of the primary process and to do that, sanctioning wayward state parties for violating the rules would seem to be their only recourse.

All of this puts Nevada in the spotlight. A heavily unionized state, organized labor will play a vital role as the candidates scramble for the coveted endorsements. Two big unions are taking a wait and see attitude. The Culinary Union, the state’s largest, has been extremely active in educating its 60,000 members about the Caucus process but has delayed announcing its endorsement until after the Iowa contest. And the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing 17,000 health care workers is also sitting on the fence for the moment. Their support could be vital especially in population centers like Clark County (Las Vegas) and Washoe County (Reno).

But this hasn’t stopped the Communication Workers of America and the United Steelworkers from endorsing John Edwards. While Edwards is competitive in Iowa, his Nevada operation has only recently come to life with a recent media buy and the opening of additional offices. He is counting on the foot soldiers in organized labor to assist him in getting his supporters to the Caucus sites. If Edwards does well in Iowa, one would expect him to make a supreme effort in Nevada to follow up on his success. With two of the larger unions on his side, he has an excellent ground operation already in place to take advantage of any momentum coming out of Iowa.

The candidate who has made the most appearances in the state has been New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. But his cash-starved campaign seems to have made few inroads among Democrats and he is not expected to mount a serious challenge.

As a sign of how unique these caucuses will be, the Democrats will set up 8 to 10 “at -large” caucus sites for shift workers on the Las Vegas Strip who would otherwise be working while the caucuses are being held. This will hopefully drive the expected turnout close to 50,000 – about half of the turnout for the Iowa Caucuses but a significant number considering that Nevadans have never been in a position to impact a presidential race so decisively.

The Caucuses are the brainchild of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who fought for an early western nominating contest in order to make the process more representative of the country at large. While using Nevada as a template for the typical western voter might be something of a stretch, there’s no doubt that Reid has succeeded perhaps beyond what he imagined in making Nevada a player in this year’s nominating process.

The road to the Democratic nomination for President now passes through Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe, and points beyond. And we can add Nevadans to a list that includes Iowans and New Hampshirites of the most important voters in the nation come next month.

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.