By NICHOLAS RICCARDI and KEN THOMAS
LAS VEGAS (AP) – Seeking an edge, Hillary Clinton courted voters throughout Las Vegas’ sprawling population centers on Friday while rival Bernie Sanders barnstormed across northern Nevada in search of delegates in the state’s high-stakes Democratic presidential caucuses.
The divergent scenes offered evidence of the two paths Clinton and Sanders are following as they furiously stump for every vote before Saturday’s Nevada caucuses. Clinton is hoping minorities and unions in Nevada’s population center give her the edge over Sanders, while the Vermont democratic socialist aims to drive up turnout in the state’s more lightly-populated northern region to claim victory.
Sanders’ strategy is driven in part because Nevada Democrats allocate delegates to caucus winners based on congressional districts, giving greater weight to sparsely populated areas like Elko. Obama lost the popular vote to Clinton in the 2008 contest here but the quirky nature of the caucus enabled him to emerge with one more delegate than Clinton.
"Her base is in Clark County," said Andres Ramirez, a Democratic strategist in Las Vegas who backs Clinton. "I think he realizes he can’t break into her support more in Clark County and he’s going to the rurals."
Neither candidate is pursuing a single-track strategy. Clinton canceled a trip to Florida on Monday to campaign in Elko and Reno and her campaign has devoted significant resources building a field operation even in the most remote reaches of the states. Sanders has especially focused on wooing Las Vegas’ minority population, especially young people, both to win votes and to counter the Clinton critique that he only appeals to white voters.
Campaigning in Elko, Sanders steered clear of raising high expectations, telling supporters, "We are here to win. We hope to win." But he added, "I want democracy to flourish."
During a round-table event about women and family issues at the College of Southern Nevada, Clinton said the election should not be "a theoretical discussion" but a "down-to-earth" discussion about how to make child care more affordable for families.
"For some people that may be kind of boring, promise the moon, go after everybody, but for me that’s how you actually make a difference in people’s lives," said Clinton, who later met with a family to discuss the state’s solar industry.
In Reno, former President Bill Clinton responded to Sanders’ recent assertions that the Clinton administration’s trade policies and welfare reform during the 1990s ultimately hurt minorities. "There’s been a lot of passion in this primary," the ex-president said. "Hillary’s opponent jumped all over me last night about how bad I’ve been for African-Americans and poor people. Let me just say this, that campaign has been remarkably fact-free. A lot of the numbers don’t add up."
The Clinton campaign tried to keep hammering her appeal with black voters on Friday as it unveiled the endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn, the top Democrat from the next state on the early voting calendar, South Carolina. Clyburn’s endorsement underscored Clinton’s strength in South Carolina among the state’s African-American community and the campaign’s plan to connect with black voters in a series of "Super Tuesday" contests on March 1 throughout the South.
The stakes in Nevada far outstrip the 23 delegates up for grabs Saturday. The state was supposed to be part of Clinton’s so-called "firewall" against Sanders, one of a series of heavily-minority states that follow mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire where Clinton would do well. But Sanders has poured resources into the state and drawn large and increasingly diverse crowds, leading some Democrats to worry that Clinton would lose the state or only narrowly win it.
"There’s no doubt he has momentum. She has organization. They know the state well," said David Plouffe, a former Obama campaign manager who is in Las Vegas to rally support for Clinton. "Listen, we got mamboed by the Clinton campaign in Clark County eight years ago. They’ve got real strength here. We didn’t see that margin coming and it’s the reason why we lost." He added: "I think Sanders will do well where we did well, some of the rural areas in Washoe County. But her real strength is down here."
Clinton’s campaign deployed an array of high-profile supporters throughout Las Vegas, including former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, actress Jamie Lee Curtis and several members of Congress, including Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Maxine Waters and Zoe Lofgren of California and Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.
In the closing days, Clinton has also stopped at multiple casinos, where she has been greeted warmly by the heavily-immigrant casino workers. Las Vegas’ powerful unions have ensured that organized casinos will open rooms for workers to caucus on Saturday and will give them breaks to go vote. Though the union that represents 57,000 hospitality workers, the Culinary Union, has declined to endorse in the race it is urging its members to caucus, something that several Democrats think will help Clinton by turning out voters who are loyal to her. In 2008 she won the casino caucus sites even though the union endorsed Obama.
Thomas reported from Elko, Nevada. Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.
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