John Kerry was an overwhelming winner in Nevada's Democratic precinct caucuses Saturday - a Valentine's Day victory that unexpectedly drew thousands of people to the party's meetings and delighted surprised officials who saw far less enthusiasm four years ago.
With all but one of the state's 1,671 precincts counted, the Massachusetts senator outdistanced his combined Democratic rivals, capturing 63 percent of the votes.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean ran a distant second, winning 17 percent of the vote followed by South Carolina Sen. John Edwards at 10 percent, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich at 7 percent, and the Rev. Al Sharpton with 1 percent. Some 3 percent were uncommitted, according to the results that won't be made official until next week.
Many of the Democrats who attended the caucuses at schools, senior centers even saloons around the state said they were angry with President Bush, and saw Kerry as the candidate best able to defeat him.
"Right now, John Kerry is the man," said Mark Ogulnick of Boulder City, a casino gift shop manager who attended the Las Vegas caucus. "Bush has proven time and time again that he is incompetent. This administration is a joke. For the most part, he's alienated us from the rest of the world."
Kerry "just symbolizes some hope in a hopeless time," said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of an organization that helps the homeless in Las Vegas. "He's like a beacon, and we're all clinging, hoping for something that won't let us down."
"Thank you to the voters of Nevada for a lovely valentine," Kerry said in a statement following the caucuses. "Today you have sent George Bush the message that his days in the White House are numbered and change is coming to America."
At stake in Nevada, according to the Democratic National Committee, were 24 national convention delegate votes. The state Democratic Party put the count at 22, though none will be officially committed until the state convention in April.
Kerry went into Saturday's caucuses in Nevada and Washington, D.C., with 539 delegates, compared with 182 for Dean and 166 for Edwards, according to an Associated Press tally. Nomination requires 2,161 delegates.
State party leaders expressed surprise at the huge turnouts in Las Vegas and Reno caucuses. About 6,000 people overflowed onto a football field in Las Vegas - 10 times the number who attended the caucus meeting four years ago. In Reno, more than 1,300 people showed up, six times the total in 2000.
In Carson City, where fewer than 100 people attended a 2000 caucus, more than 500 people were on hand.
"The crowd speaks for itself," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who attended both the Las Vegas and Reno caucuses. "I'm stunned. I've been in politics all my adult life and I have never seen a crowd like this" at a Nevada Democratic Party event.
"I've never had to look for a parking space before," he said.
Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, called the Reno caucus turnout spectacular.
"I see a lot of people here today who I've never seen at caucus meetings before. We're here to say the Democrats are alive and kicking."
Kerry helped his Nevada effort by being the only presidential contender to campaign in the state just before the caucuses. He spoke to a cheering crowd of about 2,000 people in a Las Vegas gym Friday night and then attended the Las Vegas caucus Saturday before leaving for Wisconsin, which holds its primary Tuesday.
Kerry arrived in Nevada with an edge over Edwards, his closest opponent in the state, because of his long-standing opposition to building the nation's dump for high-level radioactive waste about 90 miles from Las Vegas. Edwards has had a mixed record on the Yucca Mountain dump issue.
Kerry also was helped by numerous endorsements from top Nevada Democrats - the latest from Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev. Among the state's elected Democrats, she's outranked only by Reid, who remains uncommitted.
Ted Jelen, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor, said the big turnout and Kerry's Nevada victory show "there are some people who are really, really angry with the president."
"George Bush is a very polarizing figure, and people who don't like him wanted to get their two cents in," Jelen said.
Four year ago the state went for Bush over Al Gore, 50-46 percent.
Jelen said Bush will run hard, but in Nevada the Democratic nominee will be helped by lingering resentment over Bush's 2002 approval of the Yucca Mountain dump, and by the all-out re-election effort being made by Reid, who has raised more than $6 million for his campaign.