By Shailagh Murray and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 20, 2008; Page A01
LAS VEGAS, Jan. 19 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won Nevada's Democratic caucuses on Saturday, handing Sen. Barack Obama a second consecutive setback in a volatile nominating contest that is now poised to become a coast-to-coast battle.
Competing in the first state with significant blocs of minority voters, Clinton won 51 percent of the vote, Obama took 45 percent and former senator John Edwards garnered 4 percent, the result of a colorful and at times chaotic process that included caucuses held in casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. Clinton won almost every casino site and dominated among women and Latino voters, while Obama drew overwhelming support from blacks -- a potential foreshadowing of how the contest could play out when almost two dozen states vote on Feb. 5.
"I guess this is how the West was won," Clinton declared at a victory rally in Las Vegas.
Obama's campaign argued that the outcome in Nevada was a shared victory and laid claim to 13 delegates, compared with 12 for Clinton, because of the way his support was distributed around the state. Obama aides also complained of what they said were voter-suppression tactics. "We're not treating this as a loss," said senior adviser David Axelrod. "We'll keep letting them spin the victories, and we'll keep taking the delegates." Obama left the state without delivering a concession speech, and his campaign sent messages to supporters heralding the edge in delegates.
Clinton officials rejected the delegate claim out of hand, arguing that the count has not been finalized.
The debate over the details of delegate allotment reflected the growing intensity of the competition. After three contests in as many weeks, Clinton and Obama are still struggling for the upper hand in the race for the nomination, neither having gained sustained momentum as they have struggled through a series of fierce back-and-forths.
Clinton scored her latest victory after an especially bitter exchange last weekend over racial divisions, and after her husband took on an even more visible role as both a glad-handing surrogate on the Vegas Strip and a sharp critic of Obama. In one notable exchange on the eve of the vote, Bill Clinton lambasted a reporter who asked about a recent court ruling on the caucus arrangements; the incident, replayed repeatedly on television, bore echoes of his comment the night before the New Hampshire primary that Obama's stance on the Iraq war is a "fairy tale." In both states, his wife won.
The Nevada results contained some worrisome signs for Obama along demographic lines. The heavy support that Clinton won among Hispanics suggested that he could face an uphill climb to win that important group in California, New York and New Jersey, the three most populous states with primaries on Feb. 5. In the first contest in which race has played an important role, white caucusgoers in Nevada backed Clinton over Obama, 52 percent to 34 percent, and nearly two-thirds of Latinos chose Clinton. Black voters broke heavily for Obama over Clinton, 83 percent to 14 percent.
In the two weeks since her stinging third-place defeat in Iowa, Clinton has sharpened her differences with Obama to emphasize her experience and the economy, while honing in on her advantage among Latino voters. Yet even as she campaigned in Nevada -- and played down expectations for how she would do here, with her advisers predicting as late as Saturday morning that the setup would favor Obama -- Clinton kept an eye on California, detouring for a day of campaigning there and ramping up her statewide operation.
As the two candidates head to South Carolina, they are planning to focus increasingly on nearby Feb. 5 states such as Arkansas and Georgia, turning the Democratic nomination into a truly national race.
Racial divides could trigger renewed friction within the Democratic Party as the two sides rush to pick up support from blacks and Hispanics. Although leaders of a "black-brown" coalition have sponsored Democratic debates focused on minority issues, the two groups have a history of mutual mistrust in politics and could find themselves in a tug-of-war between Obama and Clinton. Already, the campaign has been engulfed by identity politics after remarks by Clinton about the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, and after Spanish-language ads, run by a union backing Obama, questioned Clinton's support for Latinos.
Saturday, Clinton continued to outperform Obama among women, a trend that began with her victory in New Hampshire on Jan. 8 -- in contrast to Obama's early victory among women in Iowa. According to network entrance polling, women made up 59 percent of all caucusgoers in Nevada, and they went into the caucuses favoring the senator from New York over Obama, 51 percent to 38 percent, similar to the advantage among women she enjoyed in New Hampshire. Winning strong support from women has been the cornerstone of her strategy for winning the Democratic nomination.
Despite a late endorsement by the powerful Culinary Workers Union, Obama did not win enough support from Nevada's hourly laborers -- or any single demographic -- to produce new momentum after his initial burst of success in Iowa. Since his first-place finish there, the senator from Illinois has struggled to outpace Clinton in consecutive contests and is now banking heavily on a victory next Saturday in South Carolina, where as much as half of the Democratic electorate will be African American.
But Obama's advisers said that, under the complex apportionment rules governing the Nevada caucus process, he will wind up ahead of Clinton by one delegate in the state. Clinton currently leads in the overall national delegate count, including the "super delegates" who can choose their preferred nominee without waiting for any individual state results but may also change their minds at any time.
The caucuses yesterday met to select about 11,000 delegates for a series of local and state party nominating conventions later this year, leading up to the decision on awarding the state's 25 delegates to the Democratic National Convention this summer. David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager, expressed confidence that Obama will take the majority. "This is a very close contest, and we obviously both did a good job at turning out voters," Plouffe said, adding, "I do think that increasingly this is going to turn into a contest of delegates, and I think that's an important measure."
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson rejected the rival camp's claim. "Hillary Clinton won the Nevada caucuses today by winning a majority of the delegates at stake," he said. "The Obama campaign is wrong. Delegates for the national convention will not be determined until April 19."
Perhaps the clearest winner of the Nevada caucuses was Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, who secured the early spot on the calendar for his state and boldly predicted turnout of 100,000 -- more than 10 times the Democratic turnout in the 2004 Nevada caucuses. That forecast appeared to come true, with upwards of 114,000 caucusgoers reported. Reid was neutral in the race, but his son, Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, served as Clinton's Nevada chairman and helped her to lock down support from the Democratic establishment.
Turnout was less impressive along the Strip, where the famous skyline of soaring casinos and neon-lighted hotels drew hundreds, rather than thousands, at nine at-large sites. Clinton won the caucus at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino 93 to 69, for example; at the Wynn, which had expected 1,000 participants, Clinton won 189 to 187. Obama won at Caesars Palace 82 to 79 and also carried the Luxor.
Polling director Jon Cohen and staff writer Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.