Jan. 19, 2008 — -- 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.
"I haven't talked to the president since he made those comments," Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson said. "It's a fair question, but it's one where I'm going to have to speak to him."
Clinton, who is campaigning hard for his wife across the country, also said that culinary workers approached him and daughter Chelsea Clinton to say that they would not follow union directives to support Obama.
Obama responded to Bill Clinton's comments about voter intimidation. "Yeah, he's been getting a little fired up, hasn't he?" Obama said. "I guess we must be doing OK. He was always really nice to me when I was 20 points down."
Obama had taken some heat from the Clinton campaign for praiseworthy comments he made this week about Republican icon and former President Reagan. Specifically, Obama said that "it's fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10 to 15 years in that they were challenging conventional wisdom."
Despite efforts by the Clinton campaign to flame party backlash, Obama defended the comments.
An entrance poll in the Democratic caucuses found sharp racial division, with black voters overwhelmingly supporting Obama and Hispanic voters favoring Clinton by more than a 2-1 ratio. Clinton and Obama ran evenly among men, but Clinton prevailed among female voters and with older caucus-goers.
Clinton's performance in a debate this week also may have helped her, with more than two-thirds of the voters saying that the debate was important to their vote and Clinton taking the lion's share of those Nevadans. She also got a boost from party regulars, the entrance polling found.
The New York senator scored a somewhat unexpected victory in New Hampshire, Jan. 8, and remained the perceived front-runner in Nevada after a busy week that included the debate, an uncontested win in the Michigan primary and sensitive discussions of race involving Obama.
Edwards, who has criticized both front-runners on various issues, reached out to both Democratic rivals with congratulations. In a statement released by his campaign, Edwards characterized himself as the underdog to two $100 million candidates, claiming he is the only Democrat in the race who is not beholden to special interests in Washington.
"The race to the nomination is a marathon and not a sprint, and we're committed to making sure the voices of all the voters in the remaining 47 states are heard," the campaign statement said. "The nomination won't be decided by win-loss records, but by delegates, and we're ready to fight for every delegate."
The first-in-the-West caucus is also a first of its kind for Nevada this early in the presidential primary season, a factor that further fueled the Democratic race's unpredictability. Organizing supporters to get out and vote would be critical, campaigns acknowledged.
The Nevada Democratic Party reported 115,800 caucus attendees with 98 percent of the precincts reporting, a turnout that dwarfed a lowball prediction of 40,000 voters. Four years ago, before Nevada had its new spot at the front of the primary season, just 9,000 Democrats participated in the caucus.
Romney, coming off a major victory Tuesday in Michigan, was the perceived front-runner entering the Nevada race, which has been overshadowed as most of the candidates spent the last few days focusing on the South Carolina Republican primary.
Besides Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Romney had been the only Republican candidate devoting significant attention to the Nevada contest.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Romney had claimed 52 percent of the vote, with Paul in second with a 14 percent share and Arizona Sen. John McCain logging 13 percent of the Republican total. That earned Romney 17 delegates to four each for McCain and Paul.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Fred Thompson each claimed 8 percent of the vote, while former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani won just 4 percent of the vote and California Rep. Duncan Hunter, 2 percent. Hunter announced this evening he will drop out of the race.
Romney won broad support among Nevada's Republican voters, according to preliminary entrance poll result analysis by ABC News. Notably, while Mormons only make up 7 percent of the state's population, they accounted for roughly a quarter of Republican caucus-goers. Ninety percent of them supported Romney, who is Mormon.
Romney also won support from the state's evangelicals, a demographic that had propelled rival candidate Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and a Baptist pastor, to his victory over Romney in Iowa. It is a feat that Romney also accomplished in his victory in Michigan earlier this week.
The Republican caucus-goers cited the economy and immigration as driving factors in the 2008 race and threw support behind the former Massachusetts governor as the best candidate to tackle those issues.
During a news conference at his Florida headquarters, Romney said that he would have won the Nevada race without the Mormon vote. "I think it was pointed out to me that I won in Nevada among evangelicals as well, according to the exit polls," Romney said. "And I think … if no members of my faith had turned out at all, I still would have won in Nevada."
Romney was also happy to win among Hispanic voters, support he said he hopes will continue as the race moves into new states. Romney tied his wins in Nevada, Wyoming and Michigan to connecting with voters on core issues like the economy and continued to challenge what he calls a "broken" Washington government.
Romney was not expected to win South Carolina today and responded to a question about whom he would like to win by saying Hunter, a long-shot candidate. "I'm not ready to concede based upon exit polls," he said.
News came of the Nevada win while the Romney campaign was in the air on the way to Florida. His wife, Ann, announced reports of the victory over the plane's PA system. "I'm delighted," Romney said. "That's one, two, three. And, hopefully several more to go in the next few days."
With the Nevada victory, Romney, who has invested a large amount of his money into an expensive campaign, will have won three states — Wyoming, Michigan and Nevada.
Romney placed second in the Iowa, Jan. 3, to Huckabee, and Jan. 8 he placed second to McCain in New Hampshire.
ABC News staff contributed to this report.