In Vegas, Politics Comes to The Strip

By Paul Kane and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 13, 2008

LAS VEGAS -- Next Saturday, gamblers at the Bellagio, the opulent Las Vegas casino immortalized in the George Clooney blockbuster "Ocean's Eleven," will be treated to an unusual sight.

Just before noon, the hotel's dishwashers, cocktail waitresses, porters and bellhops will go on break and gather in a 30,000-square-foot ballroom to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama or maybe John Edwards to be the Democratic nominee for president.

A similar scene will play out in eight other casinos on or near Las Vegas's Strip as Democrats caucus in Nevada, the next stop in the party's fiercely competitive presidential race. There will be more than 1,700 caucus precincts across Nevada, but estimates are that the votes cast in the casinos could be more than 10 percent of the statewide total. Many of them will be cast by Latinos, the first time in the 2008 presidential race when that ethnic group will play a significant role.

Democratic officials, working with national party leaders, came up with the idea of caucusing in the casinos for the first time to increase participation in a town that doesn't know the meaning of a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday workweek.

Under rules set by the Nevada Democratic Party, only casinos that have been organized by the most powerful labor group in Las Vegas, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, were selected as caucus sites.

The unusual venue has set the scene for a different confrontation between Obama and Clinton, the two front-runners, than occurred in Iowa or New Hampshire.

In New Hampshire, Clinton fared best among working-class and middle-class voters, while Obama did better with higher-income voters and in college towns -- a demographic that Clinton at one point mocked as people who "don't need a president."

But in Las Vegas, Clinton, a senator from New York, is supported by many hotel and casino executives, while Obama has the backing of two key unions -- the Nevada chapter of the Service Employees International Union and the culinary workers, which announced its endorsement Wednesday after fierce lobbying from all three Democrats.

"Not only am I among friends, I am also among the best of the labor movement in this country," Obama, a senator from Illinois, said in a speech Friday night at the union's hall on the north end of town.

The same day, another union -- the Nevada State Education Association -- contended that Obama and the culinary workers are altogether too friendly, and asked a federal court to shut down the casino caucus sites because, the association said, they give preferential treatment to culinary union members.

State Democratic officials, who had been expecting the suit, said they had worked with each presidential campaign since last spring to craft the process, including the casino precincts, to drum up the largest turnout possible.

"The time for comment or complaint has passed," the state party said in a statement after the suit was filed by the teachers' union and several individuals. The union, which has not endorsed a candidate, has some leaders who individually support Clinton. It is using a law firm with at least one prominent lawyer who backs Clinton. (Another teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, has endorsed Clinton and is airing radio ads in Nevada on her behalf.)

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