Monday, January 14, 2008

"Connelly in Nevada: For Clinton and Obama, high stakes in Nevada"

Joel Connelly (Seattle P-I):
LAS VEGAS -- What happens in Vegas this week isn't going to stay in Las Vegas, as voters here will pick a leader in the contest between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.
With Republicans decamped to Michigan and South Carolina -- the state that has played a crucial role in three recent GOP nomination battles -- Democrats get center stage for the Silver State's precinct caucuses Saturday.

"With Obama taking Iowa and Hillary winning in New Hampshire, people are looking at us as the tiebreaker," said Peggy Maze Johnson, a former Seattleite and executive director of the Clark County Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party's approach in the 2008 nomination battle was to give one Western state an early voice. Nevada was picked because it combines wide-open spaces and a concentrated, heavily unionized population center with a substantial number of Hispanics and African-Americans ... and because Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is Senate majority leader. Reid's son Rory is chairman of Clinton's campaign.

It's not your polite Iowa caucuses anymore. Elbows get thrown in this town.

Clinton and Obama have vied for the support of labor leaders, celebrities and local fixers. The political atmosphere suggests a famous Vegas incident in which comedian Don Rickles spied Frank Sinatra walking into his show. "Hi Frankie," Rickles joked. "Make yourself at home. Hit somebody!"

As he was losing New Hampshire, Obama picked up two key union endorsements here -- the 60,000 member Culinary Workers Local 226, which represents most nongaming workers on the Las Vegas Strip, and the Service Employees International Union, which has 17,000 members in the state.

"He comes from the bottom to the top, and that's us," Maria Gomez, a worker at the MGM Grand Hotel, said of Obama.

The caucuses are to be held at 1,754 locations -- but nine have drawn particular attention. The state party has identified nine "at-large precincts" at Las Vegas Boulevard hotels: Bellagio, Luxor, Mirage, Rio, Caesars Palace, Paris, Flamingo, Wynn Las Vegas and New York New York.

The idea is that hotel/casino employees can make a choice for president without leaving work. But the Nevada Education Association and several plaintiffs, one a prominent Clinton supporter, have sued in federal court to stop the casino caucuses. They claim at-large precinct delegates will pack the county convention and that the plan violates the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Pro-Clinton members of the Culinary Workers Union picketed an Obama event Friday. "They shouldn't be endorsing unless they bring the members in," picket Eve Bertstressis said.

"Western" issues were supposed to get a hearing in Nevada. At one debate, a couple of questions were asked about the government's long-delayed, vastly unpopular project to store spent but highly radioactive fuel rods from nuclear power plants at nearby Yucca Mountain.

"I'm opposed to Yucca Mountain, period," Obama told a packed rally last week at Del Sol High School and argued that industries and government agencies must be made to tell local residents about the potential hazards of such projects.

The answer did not impress longtime Democratic activist Janice Brown.

"Every presidential candidate is against Yucca Mountain when he or she comes to Nevada," Brown said. "Bill Clinton did veto the enabling legislation twice when he was in the White House. Bush came here in 2000, said he was against it and then signed the bill. And we voted to re-elect him in 2004."

Yucca Mountain already has gone down in the lexicon of American political bloopers, from the time then-Sen. Chic Hecht, R-Nev., said in the early '80s that he would not allow his state "to become a nuclear suppository."

The Clinton camp has methodically worked Nevada for months. The Elko County Democratic Dinner, in a remote area of the state, had as its speaker ex-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a multimillionaire Bill Clinton golfing buddy and campaign nabob. Secretary of State-in-waiting Richard Holbrooke staged a foreign policy briefing to which casino employees were invited.

Obama has blown in to big crowds. Using a message of bottom-up change, he has undeniably connected with the unionized casino workers.

"Over 20 years ago, I walked away from a job on Wall Street to work as a community organizer," he said Friday. "I spent 3 1/2 years doing what members of Culinary 226 are doing today: organizing to keep the American dream alive for all people."

At times, as a community organizer, he had "holes in my shoes and holes in my car -- you all know what I'm talking about."

And, in one city where people doing grunt work are paid family-sustaining wages, Obama pledged to "make the Las Vegas dream the American dream."

He also promised to do something that a union-sponsored Washington initiative has done up north, raise the minimum wage every year to keep pace with inflation.

Obama bagged a series of big endorsements last week. Sen. John Kerry shared the stage with him in South Carolina. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano introduced him here. And, in the middle, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said Obama is the man to break America's red state-blue state polarization.

Still, Clinton is having her moments now that the once-wooden campaigner is interacting with voters.

Last week, a listener shouted, "I'm married to an illegal woman." Clinton replied: "No woman is illegal," triggering cheers in a crowded Mexican restaurant. She quickly added "And no man, either."

She won't win the votes of Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs, but an engaged Clinton -- she rang doorbells Saturday in a minority neighborhood -- is a lot more appealing than the insular Clinton of a month ago.

But the Clinton campaign has gone subtly negative, depicting Obama in terms of an old ranch saying. The eloquent Illinois senator is being portrayed as all hat and no cattle.

Clinton is, in her words, "drawing some contrasts and comparisons," saying of Obama: "He was a part-time state senator for a few years and then he came to the Senate and immediately started running for president."

The Clinton campaign also has pointed out that as an Illinois state senator, Obama voted against a bill that expanded gambling in the state.

Obama, Clinton and Sen. John Edwards will debate here Tuesday night. Edwards has spent more of his time in South Carolina but will stay over in Las Vegas for a Wednesday town meeting.

Reid has predicted that 100,000 Nevadans will caucus Saturday. He is doing public service TV spots, and television stations have set up Web sites to explain caucus procedures.

Unlike Iowa and Washington, however, voters here are not masters of complicated rules in electing county convention delegates.

"I've been going door to door," Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said. "Some people are engaged, but there's still a lot of disinterest. People are asking, 'What is a caucus?' and these are folks who've already been contacted five times."

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