Obama’s Nevada supporters still expect to party after reality check

Sen. Barack Obama was so confident about a win in New Hampshire on Tuesday that his campaign staged more than 160 parties at supporters’ houses across Nevada, the next stop on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination.

As returns began to come in showing him instead losing narrowly to Sen. Hillary Clinton back East, the mood at Carolyn Essex’s house in North Las Vegas was subdued.

The group remained hopeful and determined, but it was nothing like the roaring throng that packed a local bar to watch the Iowa results last week.

Essex, 47, switched off the big-screen TV in the spacious living room in which about 20 Obama supporters from the neighborhood had gathered, and began to speak.

"We’re going to be victorious, you know that," she told them. "You know that this is a movement and that nothing can stop the favor of the Lord."

A campaign staffer, Jason Green, got up and rallied the crowd with Obama’s signature call-and-response chant, "Fired up! Ready to go!"

"New Hampshire is out of our control, but we can control what happens on the ground here in Nevada," Green said. "We have built the strongest campaign organization this state has ever seen."

Obama’s campaign got a boost late Tuesday when the Service Employees International Union in Nevada voted to endorse him. A union spokeswoman said that in a Tuesday teleconference Obama had the support of the 60 percent of the executive board that was required for its endorsement.

The 17,500-member union of health care and county workers today will begin educating members and knocking on doors to support Obama, Hilary Haycock said.

A spokeswoman said the Obama campaign remained confident going into Nevada and that throwing the parties hadn’t been premature.

"This campaign has always been about grass-roots organizing," Shannon Gilson said. "The fact that thousands of supporters got together tonight to root on Barack Obama speaks to the strength of our organization."

Indeed, as they continued to watch the results, Obama supporters at the Essex house, some of them new volunteers, started calling lists of voters.

No other candidate had staged a New Hampshire-watching gathering in Nevada, including Clinton, whose staff and volunteers had a business-as-usual night of phone calls to voters. But when Clinton gave her victory speech after 8 p.m. Pacific time, they paused to watch and cheer wildly at her Las Vegas headquarters.

"We’re excited. It’s good to have the momentum with us," said Clinton’s Nevada campaign chairman, Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid.

"We look forward to the eyes of the nation being on Nevada. But we haven’t taken our eyes off the ball. We’re going to continue to follow our plan."

Nevada’s Jan. 19 Democratic caucuses now look to become the tiebreaker and the main focus of the candidates. That has Democrats in the state jubilant that a contest that might have been written off if Obama seemed unstoppable now appears to be another vital fight.

Most Republican presidential candidates don’t have active campaigns in Nevada, whose Republican caucuses come after a contested Michigan primary and on the same day as South Carolina’s primary. The Democrats are not playing in Michigan and have a later date in South Carolina.

A major turn in the race is scheduled to come today, when the Culinary union, along with its international parent union, is scheduled to endorse a Democratic candidate. Speculation had been rampant that the Strip workers union, which likes to pick a winner, would go with Obama, but that was before his New Hampshire loss.

The Culinary union was having a private teleconference late Tuesday to discuss its choice. The 60,000-member local of the Unite Here coalition of textile and hotel workers plans an 11 a.m. news conference today to announce its endorsement.

But the union’s effect on the race could be diminished by the fact it held out for so long.

Obama is expected in the state on Friday, when it is also rumored that Clinton will arrive. Neither campaign would confirm its schedule, however.

Two more candidates still in the race, and with active campaigns in Nevada, are hoping the state elevates a third Democrat to a much-needed win: Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico who hopes Nevadans want a Western candidate, and John Edwards, who hopes Nevada’s union members will turn to him.

An Edwards spokesman acknowledged the campaign had a "four-state plan," hoping wins in the early states would propel an underfunded candidate, but said he was undeterred.

"We think New Hampshire was really a referendum on Senator Clinton," Adam Bozzi said. "She spent millions of dollars to make it her fire wall. This is a fight where it looks like none of the candidates are going to fade. It looks like there’s three serious contenders, and we are going to be in contention for every delegate in every state."

Bozzi made a case that Culinary’s endorsement won’t necessarily sway its members, since all the candidates have met with groups of members multiple times. The union has done a lot of caucus training, but it now will have just 10 days to persuade members to vote for the candidate it endorses.

Meanwhile Tuesday night, as New Hampshire’s Republican contest was called early for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the second-place finisher, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, had a group of volunteers diligently calling voters and distributing yard signs from a Las Vegas office.

Despite his potential regional appeal, McCain pulled out of Nevada many months ago when his campaign hit financial turbulence. After winning New Hampshire, McCain told the Associated Press, "We’re going to move on to Michigan and South Carolina," with no mention of Nevada.

Romney has the most organized Republican campaign in Nevada, although the campaign frets that a win here won’t count because the state will be seen as virtually uncontested. The only other Republican with paid staff here is Rep. Ron Paul.

The Romney operation in Nevada has made more than 150,000 phone calls and is about to get at least 60 staffers from other states.

Leaving the office with an armload of yard signs was 14-year-old Ryan Fox, who’s working hard to convince those old enough to vote that Romney is their man.

"I can vote for his second term," Ryan said.

He was not bothered by the New Hampshire result. "I know we put a lot of money into New Hampshire, but there’s still Michigan and here," Ryan said. "It’s not like he’s going to run out of money."

The junior politico was accompanied by his friend Henry Ragan, 13, whose successful campaign for student body president Ryan had managed, and their ride, Ryan’s mother Linda.

Ryan’s energetic advocacy appeared to be getting results. Both his parents started out supporting Rudy Giuliani, he said, but now "my dad’s still going back and forth, and I’ve pretty much brainwashed my mom."

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2919.

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