LAS VEGAS (CNN) — Democrats in Nevada are caucusing as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders brace for another close race in a state that was once viewed as a firewall for the former secretary of state.
Clinton is counting on a strong turnout among Latino voters to hold off Sanders’ momentum in this critical swing state. Her surrogates fanned out across the Silver State this week, attempting to portray her as the more trustworthy candidate for Latinos as they work to ramp up participation by her supporters in the Democratic stronghold of Clark County.
In the final days, Clinton’s allies have slashed Sanders’ immigration record, criticizing him as a johnny-come-lately to the issue who has been too vague about his plans. At the same time, they have continued their push for Clinton in Nevada’s rural counties — where Clinton’s canvassers have been pressing the case that Sanders’ proposals are unrealistic and unachievable in the current political climate.
Clinton has sought a strong win here to provide a jolt of momentum heading into South Carolina and Super Tuesday.
A loss, or even another close finish with Sanders in Nevada, would further chip away at the aura of invincibility that once surrounded her path to the nomination, serving as a testament to the strength of Sanders’ momentum even in a heavily Latino state where she was organized six months ahead of him.
An estimated 40% of the state’s Democratic voters are non-white — and Clinton was expected to show her strength among minority voters with a good showing here. But Sanders has emphasized his family’s immigrant roots here in ads and on the campaign trail, noting that his father was a Polish immigrant to America who originally spoke little English.
“Immigration isn’t just a word for Bernie Sanders,” the narrator said in one Spanish-language radio ad for his campaign in November. “His story is the immigrant story.”
Beyond Clinton’s breakneck campaign schedule here this week, there were other signs of concern within her campaign about the unexpected strength of the Sanders effort here.
On the same day that Clinton released an emotional immigration ad featuring Clinton talking to a tearful 10-year-old girl about the deportation letter that her parents received, her operatives added a half-million dollars to their ad spending on broadcast, satellite and cable for a total of $3.4 million to Sanders’ $3.7 million, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG, a company that tracks political advertising.
The Clinton campaign is also clearly looking at caucus states beyond Nevada, dispatching Bill Clinton to speak to voters in the upcoming contest of Colorado even as the post-caucus celebrations get underway in Nevada Saturday evening.
Clinton repeatedly dropped in on employees at the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip in her efforts to boost Clark County turnout. Both campaigns had heavily courted the powerful Culinary Workers Union, which supported Obama in 2008 and helped him turn out voters to caucus. But in a blow to Clinton’s campaign, they chose to stay neutral this year.
Like Obama in 2008, Sanders is counting on a strong turnout from first-time caucusgoers, though not nearly as many are expected as eight years ago when some 120,000 turned out.
Though Clinton is perceived as having an advantage with voters in Clark County, in part because of her strong support from labor unions, Sanders spent a good amount of time campaigning around the populous areas of Las Vegas this week before heading to Elko, Nevada, on Friday to rally rural voters.
During both an MSNBC forum and a speech at the Clark County Democratic Dinner on Thursday night, Sanders made a direct pitch to Latinos by chiding Donald Trump for vilifying immigrants. He argued that Congress “must move towards a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants.”
“While I understand that there are people who have differences of opinion with me on immigration reform, there is no justification, no reason, to resort to bigotry and xenophobia when we are talking about Mexicans or we are talking about Muslims,” Sanders said at the Democratic dinner at the Tropicana Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
“People can disagree about immigration reform, but in the year 2016, we will not allow the Trumps and others to divide us up and appeal to racism, which has done this country so much harm for so many years,” he said.
During the MSNBC/Telemundo forum, Sanders also defended his 2007 vote against legislation that would have revamped the immigration system, stating that he objected to guest-worker provisions that were described by one legal advocacy group as being “akin to slavery.”
Both Sanders and Clinton have also made an aggressive play for Nevada’s rural voters this cycle. Clinton won the popular vote here in 2008. But by organizing in the delegate-rich rural counties of Nevada, Obama won more nominating delegates to the Democratic National Convention than Clinton.
Clinton is heavily organized in those rural counties this time. The looming question is whether her campaign will be able to overcome the enthusiasm for Sanders, as well as a palpable level of discomfort with her position on gun control compared to Sanders’ more moderate stances.
At a town hall in Elko Friday morning, Sanders stressed the importance of turnout among rural voters to his campaign, calling on them to show the world the desire for a “political revolution that transforms this country.”
“I really believe this from my heart of hearts: obviously we are here to win and hope to win. I want democracy to flourish,” Sanders said. “I hope Nevada turns out — I hope we have a YUGE turnout — I’m afraid to use that word! But I hope we have a very, very large voter turnout. Show the world that democracy is alive and well in Nevada.”
CNN’s Elizabeth Landers, Dan Merica and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.