LAS VEGAS – Forget Hillary vs. Obama. There's another question in the Democratic presidential race: Does what happens in Vegas really stay there, or can Sin City set the course for the nation?
Nevada has a new prominence in deciding the party's next nominee. It will hold an early caucus Jan. 19, 2008, sandwiched between Iowa and New Hampshire. The prized position is an attempt to bring more diverse voices into determining the Democratic candidate beyond the two overwhelmingly white, rural states that have traditionally dominated the process.
The hope is that a Western state with a large population of Hispanics and union workers will bring fresh issues to the debate.
"I've always felt that the system we have of choosing our president has been very cockeyed," said incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the state's top Democrat. Nevada "will give the American people a better idea of what a candidate should be for and against."
That doesn't mean candidates should be for gambling and against limits on prostitution. Nevada may be famous for some of the nation's most liberal entertainment laws, but state leaders are more interested in promoting other, less sexy political concerns. Those include water rights, nuclear waste disposal, health care, education and maintaining military installations.
Local activists say they don't expect to see the candidates on the Strip, except maybe to hold fundraisers in the large meeting rooms or spend the night in the hotels. However, they can be expected to be asked where they stand on Internet gaming and betting on collegiate sports, issues important to the local economy.
"You are going to get certain questions about local issues just like you get questions in Iowa about corn subsidies," said Democrat Tony Sanchez, chairman of the committee drafting the caucus rules and overseeing its operation. "But the thought of, 'Hey, let's get a picture of you rolling the dice,' that's not going to happen."
The selection of Nevada is part of an effort to increase Democratic support in the West, once a bastion of conservatism. Democrats won several statewide elections in the West last month and the Democratic National Committee is considering holding its 2008 convention in Denver.
Reid was the driving force behind moving up Nevada's caucus and has a lot at stake in its success.
That will be a big job. Nevada had only 17 caucus sites in 2004 — one per county — and just 8,500 of the state's nearly 1 million active registered voters took part. That was a huge jump from 2000, when fewer than 1,000 participated, and the increase overwhelmed the party and delayed results for hours.
This time, the party plans to have as many as 1,000 sites, Reid said.
The Nevada Democratic Party hired Jean Hessburg, the former head of the Iowa Democratic Party who helped oversee the last Iowa caucus, to run the operation and avoid some of the problems seen in 2004. She will be assisted by Iowa political veteran Jayson Sime and a trio of media consultants experienced in presidential politics — Jamal Simmons, Bill Buck and Roger Salazar.
The question is how much time the candidates will spend in Nevada versus Iowa and New Hampshire, where they are expected to attend parties in people's homes statewide. The candidates will have an incentive to stick to the Las Vegas area because two-thirds of the voters live in Clark County. Reno also has a concentration of Democrats, but the rest of the state is sparsely populated and overwhelmingly Republican.
At stake in the Nevada Democratic caucus voting will be 22 base delegates, compared to Iowa's 39 and New Hampshire's 19.
Many Democrats considering a bid have been working Nevada. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has visited repeatedly from his nearby home state, and John Edwards has been courting the state's labor leaders. The 2004 vice presidential nominee already has an endorsement from the Laborers' Local 872.
The labor support will be critical in Nevada because unions will be the most natural organizations to get voters to the caucus. The largest is the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, with 60,000 members who serve the drinks, clean the hotel rooms and cook the food at casinos. Political director Pilar Weiss said the union has many friends in the race and won't make an endorsement until late in the process.
"There is not a favored son or daughter," she said.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack stopped in Las Vegas on his presidential campaign announcement tour and Edwards plans to include it on his later this month. Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Chris Dodd of Connecticut have also made trips in recent months.
It's too early to gauge what kind of appeal they would have in the swing state, although former President Clinton made many friends here with his 2000 veto of a bill that would have sent nuclear waste to Nevada's Yucca Mountain.
One of Bill Clinton's fans is Billy Vassiliadis, who created Las Vegas' successful "What happens here, stays here" marketing campaign and a slick brochure and video that helped convince Democrats to bless Nevada's early caucus.
Vassiliadis has a picture of himself with Obama hanging in his office and once held a fundraiser for Edwards at his chic headquarters. He said he wants to stay neutral in the presidential primary, but paused when asked what he would do if the former president asked him to support his wife.
"There's almost nothing Bill Clinton couldn't ask me for," Vassiliadis said. "That would be tough."
Reid said that with so many senators in the race, he will not endorse anyone. "That would be a little bit foolish for me to do that when I have to ask them for things here all the time and they have to ask me for things," he said in a recent interview.
He said he will ask the gambling industry to support the caucus effort.
"I hope they step up and help with funding some of the things that need to be funded in this new environment we have there," Reid said. "And I'm confident they'll do that."
Reid rejects suggestions that associations with legalized gambling could hurt presidential candidates, noting that numerous states have it.
Frank Schreck, an attorney who has worked for gambling clients and was a chief fundraiser for Bill Clinton, said the industry is sensitive to appearances for politicians but will want to know where they stand on issues important to them.
"It's in private conversations because you don't want to embarrass anybody," Schreck said.