WASHINGTON—The Democratic presidential campaign heads West Wednesday, blazing a new trail to the White House.
Nevada will get its first close-up look at the Democratic field on Wednesday as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees hosts the first candidate forum of the campaign—drawing all the candidates except Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who begged off.
Candidates traditionally have gone through the same two states first—Iowa and New Hampshire—en route to the nomination. This time Democrats have juggled their nominating calendar to give Nevada and South Carolina a share of the early action. As of now, nomination voting will begin in Iowa on Jan. 14, then Nevada, then New Hampshire, then South Carolina, then everywhere else.
That lineup may change. New Hampshire may move its date forward to make sure it doesn't slip behind Nevada. But for now, the national party and campaigns are acting like Nevada's in the early mix.
Party leaders hope the candidates will do more than court the bosses of big labor at Wednesday's event. By making Nevada an early prize, the Democratic National Committee hopes that the candidates will find a message and voice that helps one of them win the state in the fall of 2008.
If a candidate finds a way to win the nation's fastest-growing state, the DNC hopes he or she will find the path to win the West. That would allow a Democrat to win the Electoral College and the presidency without having to break the Republicans' grip on the South.
There's some reason for the DNC's optimism.
Democrats made inroads in the Mountain West in the last several elections, winning Senate seats and governors' offices from Montana to Arizona.
One big help: dropping all talk about gun control, which had hurt the party among gun owners in the 1990s.
Another: the Republican focus on such issues as abortion and gay marriage, which endears the party to the evangelical Christians of the Deep South, but is more off-putting to libertarians of the West.
Also, some Republicans' push to expel illegal immigrants isn't widely popular in the heavily Hispanic region.
Nevada has the highest percentage of Hispanics—19.7 percent of its population—of any of the first four nomination states. Iowa has 2.8 percent, New Hampshire 1.7 percent, and South Carolina 2.4 percent.
Nevada also is more unionized than the rest. Union members make up 13.8 percent of the workforce there, 11.5 percent in Iowa, 10.4 percent in New Hampshire and 2.3 percent in South Carolina.
AFSCME has 3,000 members in Nevada. They'll want to hear where the candidates stand on their issues, including health care, retirement security and privatization that threatens government jobs. The forum starts a process that'll lead to the 1.4 million-member national union's endorsement this fall.
Unions representing casino and hotel workers in Las Vegas will hear from the candidates later this year.
Union support is still important to Democrats eager for the manpower and money that can help greatly in caucuses and primaries.
AFSCME itself didn't do so well last time. The union endorsed Howard Dean, thinking he represented the best shot at defeating President Bush. But AFSCME couldn't carry Dean over the finish line even in the early caucuses and primaries, which John Kerry swept.
AFSCME officials insist they'll try to do better this time.
"We were disappointed in the outcome at the time," AFSCME spokesman Ethan Rome said. "We plan on going deeper and having greater member involvement this time. We want a candidate who can win this election."
For more on AFSCME, visit www.AFSCME.org
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(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail email@example.com.)