LAS VEGAS • Democratic presidential candidates raced to make the most of their final weekend day before the Nevada caucuses, selling their messages and tearing into their opponents.
But the rival they focused on most intently was one who is not even competing in the state.
“I’ve got news for Mr (Michael) Bloomberg,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said at an event on Sunday in Carson City, Nevada, taking aim at the former New York City mayor within five minutes of his opening remarks. “The American people are sick and tired of billionaires buying elections.”
In a rarity, former vice-president Joe Biden echoed his progressive counterpart. “Sixty billion dollars can buy you a lot of advertising, but it can’t erase your record,” he said of Mr Bloomberg in an interview on NBC’s Meet The Press that aired on Sunday.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, another moderate, had similar thoughts. “I’m here getting votes,” Ms Klobuchar said in an interview on Sunday. “It’s not something where I can just – what would be the word – transport in a bunch of ads.”
She called on Mr Bloomberg to “go on the shows that every other candidate goes on”. She added: “I don’t think I’m going to beat him on the airwaves, but I can beat him on the debate stage.”
At a forum on Sunday focused on infrastructure, Ms Klobuchar, who won the endorsement of The Las Vegas Sun last week, mentioned Mr Bloomberg early on, referring to President Donald Trump’s comments about his height as she stood to speak. “I am the only candidate that is 5-foot-4 (1.63m),” she joked. “I want that out there now.”
The fixation on Mr Bloomberg, the free-spending multi-billionaire, reflected his rising prominence in the Democratic race, even though he is skipping the first four nominating contests and focusing on the 14 Super Tuesday states that will vote on March 3.
As early voting continued in Nevada on Sunday, some of the criticism seemed to be sticking.
“Bloomberg just has bad connotations that come along with him,” Ms Leah Garwood said, as she waited in line with her husband in Las Vegas for roughly 45 minutes to vote for a different billionaire, Mr Tom Steyer of California. “It’s just at the back of my mind. It makes me uncomfortable, uneasy.”
Professor Kelly Mays, an English expert who said she favoured Ms Klobuchar and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, called it “a little frightening that you can buy your way in at this late date”.
Standing in line to vote on Sunday afternoon, she said she thought Ms Warren’s chances in Nevada were “probably not great, but I also think people are counting her out way too early”.
Nevada, which will hold its caucuses on Saturday, is more diverse than either of the two states that have held presidential nominating contests so far. The state is determined to shrug off the conventional wisdom that any momentum gained – or hopes cruelly dashed – in Iowa and New Hampshire will decide what comes after.
“I don’t think either Iowa or New Hampshire reflects America,” said Mr Jonathan Quitt, who works for a casino on the Las Vegas Strip and volunteers for Mr Biden. “I think they’re small, white-bread communities without diversity.”
The presidential race’s shift into states with more diverse electorates brings with it the potential for an increased focus on racial issues, and opportunities for candidates like Mr Biden as well as challenges for Ms Klobuchar and Mr Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who have shown little traction with non-white voters.
Public polling has been scarce in Nevada. But there are some signs that Mr Biden could find at least the partial firewall he needs here for his campaign in Saturday’s caucuses.
“There can be no Democratic nominee, none, without the voice of Latinos and African Americans being heard, and heard loudly,” he said last Saturday night. The state is nearly 30 per cent Latino and 10 per cent black and has a fast-growing Asian American population.
In addition to Nevada’s greater diversity, its residents have witnessed fewer candidate visits.
The state’s more transient population, with many residents disconnected from neighbours and focused on jobs, makes for less obsessive following of political news.
Thirty minutes into waiting in line to vote on Sunday, Mr Bob Ahern still had not decided whom he liked best.
“I like Buttigieg. I like Klobuchar. And, actually, I like Tom Steyer,” Mr Ahern said. He paused with an afterthought, adding: “And I do like Biden, too. Biden is good, too.”
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