From glitzy Las Vegas casinos to dusty desert crossroads, Nevada Democrats vote Saturday for who should challenge President Donald Trump in November’s election, with leftist firebrand Bernie Sanders riding high in the saddle.
The western state, home to three million people, is the third contest in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Nevada’s vote may serve to entrench Senator Sanders’s status as the frontrunner before the deluge of “Super Tuesday” on March 3, when people in 14 states troop to the ballot box.
Or it could provide a much-needed boost for one of the moderate candidates desperate to halt his rise.
On the eve of the vote, Sanders was hit with published revelations from US officials that Russia — which interfered in the 2016 US elections in a bid to boost Trump — was actively trying to help his own presidential bid.
Sanders immediately rejected any help that might come from Vladimir Putin’s government or allies, instructing the Russian president to “stay out of American elections.”
The Democratic race is entering an urgent phase. Any momentum from results in Nevada, and then South Carolina which votes on February 29, could prove decisive, while poor showings are almost certain to close the door on some campaigns.
Of the eight contenders still seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders leads in polling in Nevada and nationally by about a dozen points over second-place Biden.
Recently Sanders has been largely unchecked by his opponents, who have focused more on blunting the advance of campaign newcomer Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York who has poured more than $360 million from his personal fortune into campaign advertising.
But with Bloomberg unconventionally sitting out the four contests before Super Tuesday, Nevada is a fierce battleground for the other candidates.
Its diverse Democratic electorate, one-third of whom are Hispanic, may well bolster the fortunes of moderates like South Bend, Indiana’s former mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar, two ambitious contenders who to date have struggled to win over minority voters.
The race’s other centrist, Biden, is desperate to right a listing ship.
His frontrunner status collapsed after humiliating performances in the first contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire. A third straight poor showing could spell disaster.
“We need your help to bring us across the finish line,” Biden tweeted to Nevadans late Friday.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign has stagnated, hopes her standout performance in Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas — where she eviscerated Bloomberg over women’s misconduct claims against him — will earn some respect from Nevadans.
‘Gasping for breath’
As Democrats barnstormed the state Friday, Trump rallied his supporters in Las Vegas, where he savaged the “sick” and “radical socialist” contenders for his job.
Bloomberg was left “gasping for breath” after his debate debacle, Trump said, to loud cheers.
Sanders is “crazy,” Warren is “a mess,” Biden has been “angry” and billionaire activist Tom Steyer is a “schmuck,” the president added.
Voting in Nevada begins at noon (2000 GMT) Saturday, and officials are hoping to avoid the chaos that marred Iowa.
Nevada and Iowa both vote in a caucus format. Unlike in a primary, where voting is by secret ballot, caucusgoers attend precinct gatherings where they vote publicly by standing with fellow supporters of their chosen candidate.
But the Iowa caucus was thrown into disarray earlier this month when online applications used to tally the results malfunctioned.
“What happened in Iowa will not happen in Nevada,” the state’s Democratic Party chairman William McCurdy insisted to CNN.
Precinct captains and volunteers have been trained on what McCurdy called “low-tech” programming used to collate and transmit votes to party officials.
Trump nonetheless sought to sow doubt in the ballot.
“I heard their computers are all messed up just like Iowa,” he told his rally, citing no evidence.
“They say they’re going to have a lot of problems tomorrow.”