Hillary Clinton won a decisive victory in yesterday's Nevada caucus, giving her all-important momentum in the Democratic presidential nomination race following some dirty last-minute campaigning in which she accused supporters of her main rival, Barack Obama, of attempting to intimidate her voters.
With 90 per cent of the caucuses tallied, the former First Lady had almost 51 per cent of the vote to Obama's 45 per cent. John Edwards, who had polled neck and neck with the others just a few days ago, suffered a collapse to less than 4 per cent. Mitt Romney ran away with the Republican caucus – he was the only major candidate to compete in Nevada. His Republican rivals focused on South Carolina, where primary voting was in full swing last night, with results due after the final edition of this newspaper. Polling suggested a tight race pitting John McCain against Mike Huckabee, with the Democrat contest in that state to follow next Saturday.
Clinton had the support of almost the entire Democratic Party establishment in Nevada, along with the teachers' union and some smaller white-collar unions. Obama was counting on the organisational clout of the culinary workers' union who have a strong presence in the state's casinos. The 60,000-strong union, which rarely parts company with the party establishment, endorsed Obama last week.
Much of the heat of the final stages of the campaign focused on nine at-large caucus sites established in casinos along the Las Vegas Strip for shift workers get to their home precincts.
The Clinton campaign denounced the at-large precincts as inherently unfair, saying the presence of the culinary workers' union would give Obama an inbuilt advantage. An unsuccessful lawsuit was launched on their behalf to try to close the precincts down. The Clinton camp also accused the union of making threats against its members if they tried to vote for anyone other than Obama. He, for his part, was relying on the culinary workers to turn out in force. The turnout along the strip was ultimately disappointing, however, with just a few hundred people showing up to vast meeting halls usually reserved for large conventions at the back of casinos such as the Mirage, the Bellagio, Caesars Palace and the Wynn.
Overall, turnout was more than 100,000 – roughly one-quarter of the number of registered Democrats across the state, and almost twice as many as Democratic Party officials had projected. Nevada appeared to enjoy its new-found status as an early state in the nominating process, an honour the national party decided to bestow as a way of involving more Latinos and other minorities who barely have a voice in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire.
Nevada is also a state with a large union presence. Despite Edwards' reputation as the union guy, and Obama's key endorsements, it was clear that plenty of unionised workers support the Clintons. "You get two people for the price of one on her ticket, her and Bill. And Bill was a great president," said Kathy Barnum, a food servicer at the Circus Circus casino.
All that is good news for Senator Clinton, who has argued that she alone has the substance and the experience necessary to shift course after two terms of George Bush. The Clinton team took the battle to a new level, though, by ripping into Obama's primary political asset – his reputation as a man of integrity. The line was that Obama's supporters were using threats to try to dissuade Hillary voters from coming to the polls.
"We have been flooded with people... who have come forward to say: 'We were told that we had to wait until November to vote'," Bill Clinton told The Independent on Sunday.
Casino workers came out with a different story, suggesting non-Obama supporters had come under considerable pressure but had not necessarily received direct threats. Plenty of culinary workers turned up at the Mirage site to voice noisy support for the Clintons.
The atmosphere was akin to the frenzy accompanying a big Las Vegas boxing match, with supporters of both sides screaming at the tops of their lungs, forming conga-style lines to welcome every new caucus participant coming over to their side, and shaking their fists at their opponents.
Shift workers supporting Obama said they were appalled by the accusations made by the Clintons, and equally appalled that Bill Clinton was standing inside the caucus room as many of them came in, shook their hands and asked them to vote for his wife. "It's not fair, he's playing dirty," complained Amelia Morland, who looks after staff uniforms at the Mirage.
Bill Clinton's presence was not a violation of the rules – he left when asked – but struck many participants as a rich irony since he was accusing the other side of strong-arm tactics. The long-time Clinton aide Terry McAuliffe countered: "We're encouraging people to vote. There is no intimidation." The mention of intimidation was not prompted by the reporter's question.
Yesterday's victory gives Senator Clinton potentially decisive momentum in the run up to the Democratic contest in South Carolina and, thereafter, the big fights in New York, New Jersey, California and many other states on 5 February.
Since Senator Clinton leads in the opinion polls in New York and California, she is on course – barring some unforeseen upset – to have the nomination wrapped up in 17 days. The Republican race, by contrast, is not nearly so cut and dried.
The primaries: To Florida and beyond
After South Carolina, the race for the presidential nomination will move on to Florida, where Republicans and Democrats will vote in members-only primaries on 29 January.
The Democratic primary will be nothing more than a "beauty contest" – as a penalty for the state jumping the gun, no delegates will be selected and the candidates have pledged not to campaign. But Hillary Clinton has a hefty lead in the polls over Barack Obama.
On the Republican side, however, the outcome will be crucial. Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor, has pursued a high-risk strategy of staying out of earlier contests and concentrating all his fire on Florida. If he fails to win, he could be out of the race in one blow. From being well ahead in the polls, he now lags behind John McCain.
Then it is "Super Tuesday" on 5 February. Twenty-four states, including California, New York and Illinois, will allocate more than half the delegates to the summer Democratic and Republican conventions. A convincing win will virtually seal the nomination, and the election race proper will get under way, one day short of 10 months before Americans actually vote for their next President.
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