Clinton, Romney win Nevada; Obama claims delegate victory

ByJill Lawrence, USA TODAY

LAS VEGAS -- Mitt Romney took Nevada's Republican caucuses Saturday, while Democrats debated whether their party had rendered a split decision.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the vote count among those at the caucuses, but Illinois Sen. Barack Obama claimed a slight advantage in national convention delegates on the strength of his showing in rural areas.

The hard-fought Democratic race was the party's first in the West. "We will build on what we achieved here today and continue to make clear here in Nevada and across the West (that) Democrats — we're the problem solvers," Clinton said this evening. "We have the answers for what we need to do to keep our country strong."

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said in Florida that the win here is "huge for us." He said his victories in Wyoming, Michigan and Nevada show he's "made the inroads you need" to win the White House.

Clinton's 6-point victory in the caucus vote continued a comeback she began in New Hampshire on Jan. 8 and gave her momentum going into the South Carolina primary a week from now. She told cheering supporters that "this is how the West was won."

An endorsement from the Culinary Workers Union had been expected to give Obama a boost at nine special caucus sites for shift workers on the Las Vegas Strip. But he only won two of them.

Obama said in a statement released by his campaign around 6:15 p.m. ET that he came from 25 points behind and nearly beat Clinton today because he did well across all of Nevada — "including rural areas where Democrats have traditionally struggled."

The tensions as the Democrats head into the South Carolina primary in a week were apparent in comments from the two leading candidates. Clinton, asked why Nevada voters put her several points ahead of Obama, replied: "They want somebody who's going to give them solutions, not just rhetoric."

Obama did not congratulate Clinton in his statement. He said he was proud of his own effort: "We ran an honest, uplifting campaign in Nevada that focused on the real problems Americans are facing, a campaign that appealed to people's hopes instead of their fears. That's the campaign we'll take to South Carolina and across America in the weeks to come."

Obama's campaign said his performance in rural areas of the state helped him win a total of 13 national convention delegates, versus 12 for Clinton. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said that demonstrated Obama's strengths as a general-election candidate in November.

If those delegate totals hold, he was asked, would that mean Obama won? Delegates, he said, "are an important measure" because the nomination contest is turning into a protracted fight for delegates.

The Associated Press supported Obama's calculations, explaining that, "in most areas of the state where Clinton got the most votes, the party awarded an even number of delegates, so Obama and Clinton split them evenly. In some rural areas where Obama did better, the party awarded an odd number of delegates, allowing Obama to wind up with the additional delegate."

Clinton, asked if she had won the most delegates, replied: "Well nobody really knows. Obviously this is about delegates, but it's also about what people are voting for and who they think the best president will be."

Later, her campaign issued this statement: "Hillary Clinton won the Nevada caucuses today by winning a majority of the delegates at stake. The Obama campaign is wrong. Delegates for the national convention will not be determined until April 19." The reference was to delegates to county conventions, the next step in the delegate selection process.

The chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party, Jill Derby, issued a statement and then a clarification on the back-and-forth. Her final word: She said Clinton's campaign is right about when delegates will be determined. But, she added, "that said, if the delegate preferences remain unchanged between now and April 2008, the calculations of national convention delegates being circulated by the Associated Press are correct."

Jon Ralston, an independent political analyst here, said the AP and Obama's campaign are "extrapolating to the national convention if all remains the same. Obama did very well outside Clark County and delegates are apportioned by congressional district — hence the delegate advantage. But this is all about perception now and Clinton will use the win going into South Carolina and Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5.

Though the Clinton camp had complained about culinary workers being strong-armed by union officials, many union members made their own decisions. Workers at the Bellagio hotel held up signs that said "I support my union. I support Hillary."

Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, and campaign manager, Patti Solis-Doyle, sent a memo saying that despite Obama's "institutional advantages," Clinton had scored a broad victory.

Surveys of people entering caucuses "show she won the union vote, won across all income groups and won heavily among those around Las Vegas, sweeping Clark County. The Latino vote backed Hillary by over 3 to 1, and Democrats voted for her by a wide margin," they said.

Clinton also beat Obama among women.

Nevada dealt the most serious blow to former North Carolina senator John Edwards, who was in Georgia on Saturday. With nearly nine in 10 precincts reporting, he was below 4% — meaning there were very few caucuses at which he had support from at least 15% of those present.

"John Edwards is the underdog in this campaign, facing two $100 million candidates," Edwards campaign manager David Bonior said in a statement distributed by the campaign shortly after 6 p.m. ET. He said Edwards has no intention of ending his bid for the White House. "We're committed to making sure the voices of all the voters in the remaining 47 states are heard. The nomination won't be decided by win-loss records, but by delegates, and we're ready to fight for every delegate."

At the Bellagio, Edwards had eight people — compared to 271 for Clinton and 191 for Obama.

Both Obama and Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife, made personal visits to the Bellagio. "I like him. I like what he has to say," Joyce Del Bosque, 42, a reservations clerk, said of Obama. "But I think experience has won me over." She caucused for Hillary Clinton.,

There were 520 Democratic caucus sites and 100 Republican sites throughout the state. Turnout in both parties was well above expectations. Democrats, who attracted 9,000 people to caucuses in mid-February 2004, reported turnout of more than 120,000. Republicans drew 11,000 in their last caucuses 20 years ago; this year they drew four times as many.

"Today's caucus was a tremendous success," said Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate's majority leader. "Well over 100,000 Nevadans got out and made their voices heard."

Romney laid groundwork early for the GOP race and opened up a big poll lead as caucus day approached. The Republican contest was overshadowed by the South Carolina GOP primary, where the race was tight between Mike Huckabee and Sen. John McCain, and by the fierce Democratic contest here.

Romney and anti-war Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, were the only Republicans who had a campaign presence here. The other major GOP candidates were busy in South Carolina and Florida, which votes Jan. 29, and did not contest Nevada.

Surveys of voters as they entered the caucuses showed Romney won 9 out of 10 Mormons, who comprised about a fifth of participants, the Associated Press reported. He also did well among older voters and those making more than $100,000 a year. Romney said in Florida that he would have won even if no Mormons had participated in the caucuses.

Democrats moved Nevada to an early calendar slot to give the West, Hispanics and labor more of a voice in choosing a nominee. It was initially unclear how much time or money candidates would spend on the state, but Clinton, Obama and Edwards all concluded a win here would be valuable.

Edwards hasn't won a contest yet. Obama needed to reinforce confidence among South Carolina's black voters that he has broad appeal. Clinton sought to restore some of the aura of inevitability that vanished when she lost Iowa and scraped to a narrow surprise victory in New Hampshire.

The three Democrats showed up at restaurants, community centers and high schools from Reno and Elko to Pahrump, Henderson and Vegas, creating buzz wherever they went. Nevada voters were thrilled by all the unfamiliar attention.

"They've never come this close to home before," said Helen Byrne, 49, of Las Vegas. "Voters and the media and everyone else are tuned in to our little town that's more than just casinos. There are people who live here and have regular jobs." She said she works in a bank.

Paul Kane, 44, psychotherapist from Las Vegas, attended a Bill Clinton event in Las Vegas late Friday afternoon and said he'd work at a caucus for Hillary Clinton. "You can feel there's more importance to our votes," he said. "It's an opportunity. We should act on it. It's a privilege."

The Democratic battle was notably more contentious than the earlier rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire. Edwards campaigned doggedly, but declined in polls.

Clinton and Obama, meanwhile, slugged it out over a range of issues.

•On the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository: Both oppose it, and they both get campaign donations from nuclear energy companies.

•On Obama's comments on Ronald Reagan and Republican ideas: Obama said they challenged conventional wisdom. Clinton said the ideas, such as privatizing Social Security and eliminating the minimum wage, were bad. Obama's spokesman said Clinton voted for the worst GOP idea of all, the Iraq war.

The pair also dueled over Hispanic votes, going door-to-door and hotel-to-hotel, and announcing a series of dueling endorsements. Clinton enlisted "Ugly Betty" star America Ferrera and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Obama's main claim was the culinary union, which is 40% Hispanic.

The two camps also went head to head over a radio ad by UNITE HERE, the Culinary's parent union. The ad accused Clinton of letting her allies try to block Hispanic workers's voting rights.

It was a reference to a last-minute lawsuit to kill the nine caucuses on the Strip. The suit was filed two days after the union endorsed Obama.