U.S. Presidential Election 2008

Friday, January 18, 2008

Obama and Clinton Seek a Softer Tone

The three top Democratic presidential candidates have competed full-out to win the Nevada caucuses here Saturday in a tumultuous atmosphere marked by legal challenges and uncertainty about an untested process.

In its debut in an early slot on the nominating calendar, Nevada offers Democrats the first chance to demonstrate their appeal in a Western state with a large Hispanic population and a significant union presence.

"We are past the white bread and mayonnaise phase of the process," says Ted Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, referring to the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. "The participants look a lot like America."

Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, with one first-place finish apiece, are looking to break their tie here while John Edwards is seeking his first victory. All are looking for momentum heading into South Carolina's Jan. 26 primary.

Republicans are caucusing here Saturday as well, but GOP candidates chose to spend most of their time in other states. Mitt Romney, who is coming off his Michigan victory on Tuesday, made a last-minute visit here Thursday.

State GOP spokesman Steve Wark said strategy, timing and geography kept Republicans out of the state. For the past two weeks, he says candidates haven't been here because of contests in New Hampshire, Michigan and — on Saturday — in South Carolina.

"It takes an entire day to fly across the country and back" to those states, he said.

The three Democrats have skirmished over who is most committed to killing the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, a long-standing local controversy. In a state with the nation's highest foreclosure rate, they have also debated who has the best plans to help struggling homeowners.

There's high interest in the Democratic race, but Jelen and other analysts say polling is unreliable and no one knows who or how many people will turn out.

In mid-February 2004, Democrats drew 9,000 people to caucuses that drew little notice. State party chairman Jill Derby says she'd consider triple that total, or 7% to 10% turnout, a success and would like to top 20%.

Whatever the turnout, Derby says, the caucuses will leave a legacy for the nominee in what is sure to be a swing state in November. It includes networks of activists, trained leaders in all 1,754 precincts and more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote. "This has been an extraordinary party-building opportunity and we've taken every advantage of it," Derby says.

Turnout, and possibly Obama's chances, got a boost Thursday when U.S. District Judge James Mahan rejected a lawsuit brought by Clinton allies who wanted to shut down nine at-large caucuses for shift workers on the Las Vegas Strip. He said the state party had a right to set its own rules.

The at-large caucuses, located in casinos, are open to union and non-union shift workers at hotels, restaurants, casinos, gas stations, construction sites and other jobs within 2.5 miles of the Strip. The legal challenge came two days after the Culinary Workers Union, a 60,000-member powerhouse representing waitresses, janitors, laundry workers and other Strip workers, endorsed Obama.

The lawsuit contended the at-large caucuses gave Strip workers an unfair advantage. Clinton told USA TODAY on Thursday that it raised legitimate concerns. "I want everybody to be able to participate on an equal basis. I want everyone's voices to count the same," she said.

The candidates have competed hard for Hispanic voters, who make up 40% of Culinary members and 11% of registered voters in the state. This week, Clinton and Obama unveiled dueling Spanish-language TV ads and dueling endorsements: Richard Chavez, brother of the late labor leader Cesar Chavez, for her, and Maria Elena Durazo — a top Los Angeles labor official — for him.

The jockeying continued Thursday. Human rights activist Dolores Huerta and former White House deputy chief of staff Maria Echaveste held a conference call to denounce Spanish-language radio ads that UNITE HERE, the Culinary's parent union, is running.

According to a translation provided by the Clinton campaign, the ad calls Clinton "shameless" and says she should "not allow her friends" to try to block workers from voting Saturday at caucuses near their jobs: "This is unforgivable, there is no respect."

Echaveste called the ad "outrageous" and said Obama should distance himself from it.

Edwards' deputy campaign manager, Jonathan Prince, said Obama "repeatedly attacked" union ads in Iowa, but "there's not a peep from him" when they're run on his behalf in Nevada.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said Obama has said clearly that "campaigns should fund themselves" and has said supporters shouldn't mount independent efforts to help.