Clinton courts Las Vegas, seeking rebound in White House race

Las Vegas (AFP) –


Hillary Clinton is courting Las Vegas, visiting the workaday back rooms of Sin City's glitzy casinos to rev up her White House run after a crushing loss to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire.

Nevada holds the next Democratic nominating contest on February 20, and Clinton is expected to do well in the western state, where she spent the weekend campaigning.

"I need your help on Saturday at 11," she says over and over again here, referring to the 11 am start time of the caucuses, the neighborhood gatherings that select delegates to the Democratic nominating convention in July.

Victory for Clinton will depend on the faithfulness of her following among the tens of thousands of maids, servers, croupiers and others whose livelihoods revolve around Las Vegas's hotel-casinos.

It's in the entrails of the luxurious Caesars Palace and in the windowless employees' cafeteria at the old Harrah's that she has gone to plead her case.

Clinton is in familiar territory here. Ovations greet her when she enters a room, and she is immediately surrounded by well-wishers. Hotel maids, some of whom barely speak English, whip out their smartphones to have their picture taken with "Hillary."

"May you be the president," a kitchen worker tells Clinton in Harrah's employee cafeteria. "That means the world to me," Clinton responds, batting her eyelashes.

Las Vegas is home to 73 percent of Nevada, a sparsely populated state of immense deserts and rugged mountains. Half its 2.8 million residents are white, the rest are Hispanics, blacks and Asian in origin.

Because of that diversity, the Democratic Party in 2008 gave Nevada a prime place on the primary calendar, just after the very white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

In Nevada, as in Iowa, the nominating process is conducted through meetings in neighborhood locales where participants join groups in favor of one candidate or the other, rather than vote directly for a candidate.

In 2008, 15 percent of the participants were Hispanic and 15 percent were black. Clinton prevailed over Barack Obama, winning two thirds of the Hispanic vote.

This go around, Clinton established an early presence in Nevada, opening a campaign headquarters last July, four months before Bernie Sanders did. Dozens of local personalities have endorsed her candidacy.

When Sanders' activists descended on a rally Friday organized by the powerful culinary union, which has 57,000 members, most of them Hispanics, Clinton's immense local following was plain to see.

"No, no, no. Hillary!" Gabriela Rivera tells a Sanders volunteer who vainly tries to give her a leaflet. "The woman is strong!"

But the Clinton team is trying to dampen expectations, fearing that the Sanders wave among young voters (more than 80 percent of those under 30 voted for him Iowa and New Hampshire) could spread to non-white voters here. It's the big unknown of the primary season.

- Polls lacking -

At the Sanders headquarters in Las Vegas, volunteers of all ages go in and out, leaflets in hand. The campaign has put resources into the state: more than 100 paid campaign staffers, 12 offices, and a bigger advertising budget than Clinton's.

Communications director Emilia Pablo, who was born in Mexico and raised in California, believes young people will be drawn to Sanders regardless of their race or ethnicity.

"The young folks want to join the political revolution, and then they tell their parents, uncles and aunts, who might have been set for Hillary Clinton, but then these young kids (say), 'Mom, Dad, you might want to have a second thought,'" she says.

The Vermont senator has also made some Hispanic allies, like the publisher of the Spanish-language monthly El Reportero, Luis De Leon.

"The majority of the Latinos that have to work 12 hours from sun up to sun down, they see themselves in that," he said, of Sanders' denunciation of the widening gap between rich and poor.

No Democrat can win their party's nomination without substantial minority support. In South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Texas, black and Hispanic Democrats outnumber whites.

The black and Hispanic communities are very different, sociologically and in terms of their priorities, but Clinton has so far gained their support.

A CNN poll in January found that 58 percent of non-whites nationally preferred Clinton, as did three quarters of South Carolina's black Democrats.

The enthusiastic welcome she received Sunday at a historically black Baptist church in Las Vegas, attests to her popularity compared to Sanders, who was given a polite reception at the same service.

But polls are lacking in Nevada, and focus only on Hispanics. Sanders hopes that his victory in New Hampshire, which made a big splash in the media, will make him better known here, and set the stage for a surprise on Saturday at 11.