LAS VEGAS (CNN) — Hillary Clinton will win the Nevada Democratic caucuses, CNN projected Saturday, giving Clinton a crucial victory that could ease concerns about her ability to secure the party’s nomination.
The win provides a jolt of momentum to the former secretary of state as she heads into the February 27 South Carolina Democratic primary and Super Tuesday on March 1 against Democratic rival Bernie Sanders.
Clinton faced a surprisingly spirited challenge here from Sanders. The two were in a virtual dead heat in recent days. A win by Sanders, who trounced Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, would have dealt Clinton a dramatic setback.
“Thank you, Nevada,” Clinton said in a victory speech. “Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other.”
In a statement, Sanders said he called Clinton to congratulate her.
“I am very proud of the campaign we ran,” he said. “Five weeks ago we were 25 points behind and we ended up in a very close election. And we probably will leave Nevada with a solid share of the delegates.”
Earlier this week, Clinton’s surrogates fanned out across the Silver State, attempting to portray her as the more trustworthy candidate for Latinos, a key voting bloc.
In the final days, Clinton’s allies slashed Sanders’ immigration record, criticizing him as a johnny-come-lately to the issue who has been too vague about his plans. At the same time, they continued their push for Clinton in Nevada’s rural counties — where Clinton’s canvassers pressed the case that Sanders’ proposals are unrealistic and unachievable in the current political climate.
An estimated 40% of the state’s Democratic voters are nonwhite — and Clinton was expected to show her strength among minority voters with a good showing here. But Sanders has emphasized his family’s immigrant roots here in ads and on the campaign trail, noting that his father was a Polish immigrant to America who originally spoke little English.
“Immigration isn’t just a word for Bernie Sanders,” the narrator said in one Spanish-language radio ad for his campaign in November. “His story is the immigrant story.”
Beyond Clinton’s breakneck campaign schedule here this week, there were other signs of concern within her campaign about the unexpected strength of the Sanders effort in the state.
On the same day that Clinton released an emotional immigration ad featuring Clinton talking to a tearful 10-year-old girl about the deportation letter that her parents received, her operatives added a half-million dollars to their ad spending on broadcast, satellite and cable for a total of $3.4 million to Sanders’ $3.7 million, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG, a company that tracks political advertising.
The Clinton campaign is also clearly looking at caucus states beyond Nevada, dispatching Bill Clinton to speak to voters in the upcoming contest of Colorado even as the post-caucus celebrations got underway in Nevada on Saturday evening.
Clinton repeatedly dropped in on employees at the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip in her efforts to boost Clark County turnout. Both campaigns heavily courted the powerful Culinary Workers Union, which supported Obama in 2008 and helped him turn out voters to caucus. But in a blow to Clinton’s campaign, they chose to stay neutral this year.
Like Obama in 2008, Sanders had counted on a strong turnout from first-time caucus-goers, though not nearly as many are expected as eight years ago when some 120,000 turned out.
Going into Saturday, Clinton was perceived as having an advantage with voters in Clark County, in part because of her strong support from labor unions, Sanders spent a good amount of time campaigning around the populous areas of Las Vegas this week before heading to Elko, Nevada, on Friday to rally rural voters.
During both an MSNBC forum and a speech at the Clark County Democratic Dinner on Thursday night, Sanders made a direct pitch to Latinos by chiding Donald Trump for vilifying immigrants. He argued that Congress “must move towards a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants.”
“While I understand that there are people who have differences of opinion with me on immigration reform, there is no justification, no reason, to resort to bigotry and xenophobia when we are talking about Mexicans or we are talking about Muslims,” Sanders said at the Democratic dinner at the Tropicana Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
“People can disagree about immigration reform, but in the year 2016, we will not allow the Trumps and others to divide us up and appeal to racism, which has done this country so much harm for so many yeagrs,” he said.
During the MSNBC/Telemundo forum, Sanders also defended his 2007 vote against legislation that would have revamped the immigration system, stating that he objected to guest-worker provisions that were described by one legal advocacy group as being “akin to slavery.”
Both Sanders and Clinton also made an aggressive play for Nevada’s rural voters this cycle. Clinton won the popular vote here in 2008. But by organizing in the delegate-rich rural counties of Nevada, Obama won more nominating delegates to the Democratic National Convention than Clinton.
Clinton is heavily organized in those rural counties this time.
At a town hall in Elko Friday morning, Sanders stressed the importance of turnout among rural voters to his campaign, calling on them to show the world the desire for a “political revolution that transforms this country.”
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