Gathering on Valentine's Day in high school gyms, churches, senior centers and even saloons, Nevada Democrats will say who they like best among their party's dwindling crowd of presidential contenders.
The results from the precinct caucuses aren't binding and will be followed by more polling at county conventions in March and, finally, by firm endorsements for the candidates at the state Democratic convention in April.
But even though Saturday's caucuses may produce little more than a straw poll, party leaders say there's a lot of national interest in Nevada - enough to draw some of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, including the front-runner. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is due at a Las Vegas rally on Friday and is scheduled to woo those attending the Clark County caucus meeting on Saturday.
There's also enough interest in Nevada, a battleground state in the presidential race, to warrant stops Thursday in Reno and Las Vegas by Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, stumping for President Bush who was a 50-46 percent winner over Al Gore four years ago.
Nevada's precinct caucuses follow 14 primaries or caucuses around the nation - including a dozen won by Kerry as he easily outpaced other Democratic contenders and drew closer to the 2,162 delegates needed to earn his party's presidential nomination.
After Saturday's caucuses in Nevada and Washington, D.C., the focus will be on Wisconsin on Tuesday and a delegate-rich, 10-state "Super Tuesday" election March 2.
For the moment, the spotlight is on a small Western state that will send 22 pledged and 10 "superdelegates" to the Democrats' national convention this summer in Boston.
Washington, D.C., Democrats will send 16 pledged delegates and 23 unpledged delegates to the national convention.
"Show your love for Nevada this Valentine's Day by participating in the precinct caucuses and taking the first step toward removing George W. Bush from the White House," the Democrats' Web site states.
"Even though our caucuses are nonbinding, there's still an effect because Nevada can help build a candidate's momentum - or kill it," said state Democratic Party spokesman Jon Summers. "There's great power in that."
"Having the caucuses this early in the campaign season really lets Nevada Democrats know they have a voice in selecting the nominee," Summers said. "It's one more example that Nevada is a battleground state."
While Kerry is far ahead nationally having captured 515 of the 997 delegates selected so far, backers of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean urged Saturday's caucus-goers to support Dean and not "timidly line up behind the media's anointed front-runner."
Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates, who's chairing Nevadans for Dean, added that Dean opposed Bush and the war in Iraq, and his courage "should be rewarded in at least one state. And that state is Nevada."
Others seeking delegates in Nevada are North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. As state Democrats fill out their paper ballots, they also may pledge to remain uncommitted or submit write-ins.
Backers of retired Gen. Wesley Clark had urged support for their candidate before he withdrew from the campaign this week. His departure was preceded by Democratic contenders Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Missouri's Dick Gephardt, each falling victim to Kerry's string of victories.
A top Kerry supporter, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, flew to Las Vegas on Monday to point out Kerry's campaign successes and his consistent, long-standing opposition to a proposed national nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain northwest of Las Vegas.
Cisneros said Kerry's opposition to the dump has stretched over 17 years and no other Democrat running for president can come close to that. Bush angered many Nevadans - including Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn - by signing off on the dump in 2002.
Saturday's caucuses will be held throughout the state in large gatherings and small, with most of the delegates coming from Nevada's two most populous counties, Clark and Washoe, which encompass Las Vegas and Reno respectively.
The caucus meetings begin with a nonbinding straw poll. Those attending will then break into precinct meetings and elect delegates who will advance to county conventions representing particular candidates. A candidate must get 15 percent of the votes in a precinct to have a delegate from that precinct at the county conventions.
Participants also will talk about issues they think should be turned into planks and included in the party's platform.
At next month's county conventions, more nonbinding presidential polling will occur and delegates will be elected for the state convention, to be held in mid-April in Las Vegas. Once the state convention begins, delegates' preferences for their presidential nominee become binding.
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