In a bare-knuckle fight on one side of the aisle and cruise control on the other, Sen. Hillary Clinton edged out Sen. Barack Obama in the Nevada Democratic caucuses, notching her third primary win in a row, while Republican Mitt Romney crushed his rivals for an easy victory.
Clinton, who held a slight lead in Nevada opinion polls this week, beat Obama amid accusations of negative campaigning and voter suppression, with former Sen. John Edwards running a distant third. Obama's campaign manager issued a statement after the polls closed today, complaining about Clinton's "false" and "divisive" tactics.
Earlier in the day, Romney walked to victory in a Republican field that largely ignored Nevada to focus on the party's first-in-the-South South Carolina primary today.
With 97 percent of the precincts reporting, Clinton had 51 percent of the vote to Obama's 45 percent. Edwards, who has yet to capture a primary, had measured a disappointing 4 percent. Under the party's rules for apportioning delegates, Clinton actually earned just 12 delegates while Obama got 13.
"I guess this was how the West was won," Clinton said during a Las Vegas victory speech in which the New York senator thanked Nevadans for a record-breaking caucus turnout. "As I said many times before I don't think politics is a game, I don't think elections is just another day in the calendar. I think it really matters, the decisions we make."
The Clinton campaign heralded the victory in a statement as "overcoming institutional hurdles and one of the worst negative ads in recent memory." The statement referred to the key endorsement Obama had scored from Nevada's 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, support that many believed would propel Obama to a victory.
In addition to an attack ad funded by the culinary union, the endorsement triggered accusations by the Clinton campaign of voter intimidation by union members and prompted the Clintons to file a formal complaint about using casinos as caucusing sites. A judge, however, ruled against the Clinton team, allowing caucusing sites to be determined by party leaders.
Obama visited earlier in the day with employees at the Mirage Hotel and Casino, encouraging the staff to come out and support his campaign. The Illinois senator greeted many of the Hispanic employees in Spanish. The Hispanic vote in Nevada, where there is a concentrated Hispanic population, was viewed as a key to success there and likely helped Clinton to victory.
After Clinton's win, Obama, who had traveled home to Chicago later in the day, released a statement about the caucus thanking Nevadans for their support during an "uplifting campaign."
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, however, released a statement of his own in which he described more than 200 reported problems at caucus sites that may have hurt the candidate. Plouffe tied the reported incidents to the Clinton campaign and the controversies over caucus sites this week.
"These kinds of Clinton campaign tactics were part of an entire week's worth of false, divisive attacks designed to mislead caucus-goers and discredit the caucus itself," Plouffe said.
As Nevada voters caucused, the Clinton team held a conference call with reporters this afternoon and fielded questions about former President Clinton reportedly witnessing voter suppression by Nevada's culinary workers this week.