Nevada Democrats Gear Up For Caucuses

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Sen. John Kerry improved his odds of winning Nevada's Democratic caucuses by receiving a key endorsement and scheduling the only stop in the state by a presidential hopeful just ahead of the Valentine's Day voting.

Organizers said Friday that enthusiasm was high and predicted a much heavier turnout than in the state's caucus meetings in 2000.

Backers of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards remained hopeful, while the campaign chief for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean all but conceded the state to Kerry.

"I expect Kerry will win," said Billy Rogers, Dean's Nevada campaign director. "We're certainly hopeful that we'll do well and pick up some delegates - but we're also realists."

Edwards spokesman Justin Gilbert said Edwards' mixed voting record on building the nation's nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, compared with Kerry's long-standing opposition, "obviously is not a plus going in."

Still, Gilbert said the race remains competitive.

"We're going to do what we can to turn our people out," he said.

Democratic State Party spokesman Jon Summers said more than 1,000 people pre-registered for the caucus in Las Vegas alone - about the total number of Democrats to caucus in all 17 Nevada counties four years ago.

Saturday's statewide total might double the 2000 turnout, Summers said.

"Nevadans are just incredibly energized to get George Bush out of office," he said.

Kerry's front-running campaign received the endorsement from former rival Wesley Clark on Friday and was further bolstered by support from a key Nevada Democrat.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., was to join the Massachusetts senator at his Friday night rally in Las Vegas. Kerry also planned to attend a Las Vegas caucus meeting Saturday.

Berkley is one of Nevada's seven selected "superdelegates to the Democrats' national convention this summer, and she becomes the fifth of those seven to list themselves as for or leaning toward Kerry.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has said he plans no endorsement until after the caucuses, said the nuclear waste dump issue would be a factor in who Nevadans support.

Caucuses are also scheduled Saturday in Washington, D.C., followed by Tuesday's Wisconsin primary. Going into Saturday's contests, Kerry had won 12 of the 14 primaries and caucuses in other states and had a commanding lead in delegates.

At stake Saturday are 16 pledged delegates in Washington, D.C. and 22 in Nevada, though Nevada's results aren't binding until the state convention in April. It takes 2,161 delegates to the Democratic National Convention to win the party's nomination.

Bush narrowly defeated Democrat Al Gore in the state in the 2000 presidential election, winning Nevada by 4 percentage points. Democrats have noted the narrow victory along with Bush's 2002 support of the nuclear waste dump as key reasons to include Nevada in their strategy for winning back the White House.

Bush angered many Nevadans, including Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn, by endorsing the plan to create the Yucca Mountain dump 90 miles from Las Vegas.

"It obviously is a key, key state to the party," Democratic Party chief Terry McAuliffe said last month. "We need the Electoral College votes." The state has five electoral votes; 270 are needed to win the presidency.

Republicans want to keep the state, which has an electorate about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

GOP chairman Ed Gillespie stumped for Bush on Thursday and first lady Laura Bush was expected in Las Vegas next week for a round-table discussion about jobs. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also have visited to raise money.


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