Sen. Bernie Sanders jokes around as he speaks during a rally at Bonanza High School on Feb. 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. Sanders is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination ahead of Nevada’s Feb. 20 Democratic caucuses. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Outrage Machine is a weekly opinion column by voices from the left and right on Washington. 

RENO, Nev. — Nevada is still the new kid on the block when it comes to early-state status in the presidential race. But this year, the state could play a pivotal role on both sides.

With the Democratic caucuses approaching on Feb. 20, followed by the Republican caucuses on Feb. 23, both contests have become increasingly intense, especially the pitched battle here between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The Republicans are sending surrogates as South Carolina intervenes Saturday, three days before Nevada Republicans vote on their presidential preference. But both Democratic candidates spent the weekend in Nevada, and Clinton canceled events in Florida on Monday to campaign an extra day in the state, a clear sign her campaign is concerned about a place once considered a lock for her.

It is a lock no more.

[The Daily 202: Hillary Clinton could blow it in Nevada]

The Clinton campaign had an early advantage in Nevada, setting up in the spring of 2015. She hired experienced operatives who know the state from their tenure on the Clinton and Obama campaigns in 2008. She did an event in Las Vegas last May, an effort to show she was even friendlier than the president on immigration reform and would use even more executive orders if necessary. The play was clear, the strategy solid.

It seemed as if Team Clinton knew even then that Sanders would do well in new Hampshire and that she would need Nevada as a firewall to stop any momentum after the first two early states. And for about six months, it seemed Sanders did not even know Nevada was on the map.

When his team finally arrived in October, Sanders’s campaign barely had an office and had no experienced Nevada hands. Within a few weeks, his campaign manager, who hails from New Mexico, had returned home and had to be replaced. The Nevada campaign was not in disarray because there really was no Nevada campaign.

But that has all changed three months later. The new year brought new energy to Team Sanders as he used his fundraising prowess to start funneling resources into the state, opening offices, reaching out to Latinos, preparing for post-New Hampshire momentum. And now, buoyed by his landslide victory in New Hampshire, Sanders believes what would previously have been unthinkable: He could win here.

Nevada's Democratic caucus is slated for Feb. 20. The race has emerged as an unusually important test for candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (Reuters)

The Clinton panic is palpable.

[In Nevada, a tightening race threatens Clinton’s post-New Hampshire firewall]

Her staff repeatedly claimed that Nevada was as white as the first two early states. This was not only risibly false, but a clear sign that she wasn’t just lowering expectations but showing real fear she could lose Nevada.

After Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) publicly criticized the Clinton campaign for making such assertions — he had argued for the state’s inclusion in the early-state lineup because of its diversity — Clinton contradicted her staff. This came amid a blizzard of events in the state for the former secretary of state to shore up her bases — unions, Latinos, African Americans — while also hosting events to try to cut into Sanders’s millennial cohort, including at a Reno community college on Monday.

[In Nevada, Clinton hit from left and right on immigration]

Clinton spent Monday in Nevada and sent her husband to fill in at Florida events after her campaign clearly sensed the firewall buckling here. There is a dearth of reliable public polling in Nevada, but no one on either side has asserted a victory is not within reach for Sanders.

If he can make it in Nevada, Sanders can proffer the argument that he can win anywhere in America, not just in less diverse states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. And it could raise serious questions about Clinton’s ability to fend off an insurgent challenge that was once considered a lark. On the other hand, if she wins Nevada and then South Carolina, the entire dynamic shifts in her favor, halting the media narrative of the Sanders Surge.

On the GOP side in Nevada, the Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio campaigns all are well-organized, but the question remains whether they can overcome the enthusiasm in the base for Donald Trump. Trump has held three rallies in Nevada, all enormously well attended, and some polling I have seen and heard about from credible sources shows him winning in a landslide.

But the Nevada GOP caucuses are a strange animal. They’re on a Tuesday evening, last only four hours (and less in some counties) and turnout is expected to be under 10 percent. (In 2012, it was 8 percent).

Rubio has done outreach to the important Mormon community, which will make up a significant percentage of the vote, and he has Mike Slanker and Jeremy Hughes, who helm the political operation of Gov. Brian Sandoval (R). Bush, as he does most places, has a raft of elected officials in his camp, and his effort is being run by Ryan Erwin, who won the last two caucuses here for Mitt Romney. Cruz came later but has the conservative rising star of the state, Attorney General Adam Laxalt, in his camp, and his effort is being run by Robert Uithoven, who also works for Sheldon Adelson.

If Trump wins South Carolina by a lot, Nevada may not matter much because he should do the same here. But if not, this state could be interesting and may be the last gasp for Rubio and Bush as they strain to fill the Establishment lane.

So Nevada will matter on the Democratic side and very well might on the Republican side, too.

 Jon Ralston runs an email newsletter and all-things Nevada politics website Ralston Reports.