The Note: "The Opening Bell"

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21

The center of the political universe today locates in Carson City, Nevada when ABC News' George Stephanopoulos moderates a forum sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union beginning at 3:00 pm ET. All of the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential candidates will participate, except for Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).

In the Carson City Community Center, the candidates will serially take questions, in the following order of appearance determined by lot: Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-IA), former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), Sen. Joe Biden (D-DC), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), and former Sen. Miake Gravel (D-AK)

Note readers and children of all ages can watch gavel-to-Gravel coverage on ABC News' digital channel ABC News Now LINK and on abcnews.com's "Political Radar" LINK, as well as on the C-SPAN. ABC News Now's pre-game show will be anchored by ABC News' Kate Snow and Sam Donaldson.

There will be an 2:55 pm ET pre-program candidates photo op to which all are invited.

It is no accident that this forum is taking place in Nevada. Thanks in part to the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the Silver State will play host to an early nominating contest currently slated to take place in early 2008 in between the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Each candidate will deliver a two minute opening statement and then answer three questions from Stephanopoulos, one of which will have been submitted by an inquisitive AFSCME member. The candidates will have three minutes to respond to each question and will be allowed to deliver one-minute closing statements.

When print big dogs Tom Beaumont, Jill Lawrence, Mark Z. Barabak, Dan Balz, and Tom Beaumont all gather in one place, you know it is a mega-major event. They will all afford Jon Ralston the respect he deserves.

As Barabak correctly observes in his topical must-read Los Angeles Times' curtain-raiser, the elephant in the room with the Democratic donkeys will be the war in Iraq. LINK

Beaumont's Des Moines Register scene setter focuses on Obama's absence, and the Notion that maybe Saint Barack might actually be making a mistake by skipping the event. LINK

"Democrats will notice his absence at what is considered a key national event, and the first of the campaign centered on issues important to politically influential union activists."

"Hosted by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, the AFSCME forum is a sort of opening bell for the 2008 campaign."

Jill Lawrence in USA Today raises the Silver State flag. LINK

The AP: LINK

ABC News' Mark Halperin offers a preview: LINK

The local press is all atwitter.

Molly Ball of the Las Vegas Review Journal: LINK

Steve Timko of the Reno Gazette-Journal reports on the busy preparations being made by the Carson City community for the presidential forum today. LINK

Kelli Du Fresne of the Nevada Appeal writes that Carson City is in the national spotlight for the first time since 1897, when it was host to the world championship fight between James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons. LINK

Unlike today's forum, however, the 1897 boxing match was fought without "brutality."

Before the on-air program begins, Sen. Reid, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, and Nevada Speaker Barbara Buckley make welcoming remarks to the audience.

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