LAS VEGAS (AP) — Now that Iowa and New Hampshire are in the rear-view mirror, the Democratic presidential contest shifts to markedly different terrain in Nevada, where a largely urban and diverse electorate will test the breadth of Bernie Sanders' appeal and the durability of Hillary Clinton's coalition.
In contrast to the overwhelmingly Anglo electorate in the first two voting states, Nevada is 28 percent Latino, 9 percent African-American and 8 percent Asian-American. "We are much more representative of the national population and that makes us more of a harbinger of the final result than anything you've seen so far," said Rep. Dina Titus, a Las Vegas Democrat who backs Clinton.
That's not to say Nevada is soaking up all the attention. Sanders and Clinton are also engaged in diverse and populous South Carolina, whose Democratic faceoff follows Nevada by a week. Together, these states give Hispanic and black voters a potentially strong say in a national contest where Clinton is thought to be favored by minorities but Sanders is working hard to catch up.
Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, cut his teeth organizing her effort in Nevada's 2008 nominating contest, which she won. She installed seasoned operatives in Nevada last spring and made an early campaign stop in Las Vegas to announce her intent to expand President Barack Obama's program granting some immigrant deportation relief. She's won endorsements from many state powerbrokers.
"Hillary is still the favorite," said Billy Vassiliadis, a Democratic consultant who is neutral in the race. "But not as big a favorite."
That's because Sanders, whose impressive fundraising has put him on equal footing with Clinton, has invested heavily in a state that was hard-hit by the real estate bust. His campaign now boasts more offices than hers. He is outspending Clinton on the airwaves in Nevada. Though Sanders' first staffer arrived in Nevada in October, his campaign says it now has more than 100 here, bolstered by volunteers who had organized themselves for months, even going as far as to create their own campaign literature and buttons.
Finally, Nevada Democrats can register to vote at the caucus — even if they don't turn 18 until election day. That will also probably help Sanders, who does especially well among younger voters.
"I think we have a real shot at it," said Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, a Sanders supporter. "His message is so perfect for Nevada — $15 minimum wage, the banks basically destroyed Nevada, everyone lost their homes or is under water." Nevada has had among the highest foreclosure rates in the nation since 2008.
After Nevada, the Democratic contest shifts to South Carolina on Feb. 27, then the slate of Super Tuesday states on March 1, where Sanders is hoping a mix of caucus states like Colorado and northeastern ones like Massachusetts will give him an edge. Clinton is counting on the diversity and size of states in that bundle, such as Georgia and Texas, to boost her. The Republican contests are Feb. 20 in South Carolina and Feb. 23 in Nevada.
Like Iowa, Nevada votes through a caucus system. But unlike Iowa, Nevada is relatively new to caucuses and voters in this famously transient state often know nothing about those events. That's why a robust field operation is key. The Clinton campaign argues it has a head start.
"It's not an accident that we were here on Day 1," said Clinton's state director, Emmy Ruiz. "Nevada is not the kind of state you can participate in the last 30 days and expect to make a difference."
Beatriz Miranda, 61, appreciates Clinton's long history in both the state and public service. "She's focused on everybody," Miranda said as she called Spanish-speaking voters at a Clinton campaign office. "Sanders — I don't know him that well. He doesn't have the same experience as Hillary."
In appearances for Clinton this week, Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois recounted campaigning for Obama in Nevada's hard-fought 2008 contest. He couldn't persuade Latinos to vote against Clinton then, and he believes they will back her now. "She has a broader connection with a broader base of Americans" than Sanders, Gutierrez said.
Ingrid Lopez, 20, has occasionally been called a "communist" for backing the avowedly socialist Sanders, but she says the Vermont senator has much support in Las Vegas' immigrant communities. "I think Bernie has more of the Hispanic vote because he's a trustworthy guy," she said as she handed out Sanders literature on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus. "Hillary, she doesn't really stand her ground."
The Sanders campaign has been true to its youthful, unconventional nature in Nevada. At an Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus meeting this week, Phillip Kim, 33, made his case for Sanders on the stage, with a ukulele and a song:
"There's this guy named Bernie, he lives in Vermont
He's running for president, we like him a lot
He stands for the people, he stands for the Earth
Paid sick leave and vakay, he'll put people first."
Clinton supporters in the crowd of Democrats challenged Kim and another Sanders backer, saying Sanders hadn't organized much in their community and some of his positions seemed the same as Clinton's.
Kim, a soft-spoken former union organizer, shrugged and said: "He's just somebody I trust."
Associated Press writer Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas contributed to this report
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