Sanders tests Democratic front-runner status as Nevada caucuses kick off

Bernie Sanders faces a test of his front-runner status in the Democratic White House race on Saturday in Nevada, where voters will consider an unsettled field of candidates as they search for a challenger to take on U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Nevada caucuses come a day after the news broke that Sanders had been briefed by U.S. officials that Russia was trying to help his campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic nominating contest.

Trump tweeted on Saturday that he expected to win in Nevada in the general election in November, and alluded to the reports that a Russian disinformation effort was supporting Sanders.

A self-identified democratic socialist senator from Vermont, Sanders has surged to the top of opinion polls nationally and in Nevada after strong performances in the first two nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month.

“The intelligence community is telling us they are interfering in this campaign, right now, in 2020. And what I say to Mr. Putin, if elected president, trust me you are not going to be interfering in American elections,” Sanders told reporters on Friday in California.

After days of delay and mistrust caused by a technical meltdown during the Iowa caucuses, Nevada Democratic Party officials said in a memo to campaigns on Friday that a telephone hotline many volunteers “were already familiar with” would be the main method of reporting precinct caucus results, not digital tools.

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden greets voters at Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas on Saturday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The party understood “just how important it is that we get this right and protect the integrity of Nevadans’ votes,” it said.

While Sanders’ rivals will try to blunt his momentum in the caucuses, they each face significant challenges of their own.

Former vice-president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are looking to jump-start struggling campaigns after poor finishes in the first two states, while former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar are hoping to prove they can appeal to Nevada’s more diverse electorate.

On Friday evening, Sanders spoke to about 2,000 people in Las Vegas, revving up the crowd with vows to take on “the corporate elite” and the “whole damn 1 per cent.”

He said both the Republican and Democratic establishment were getting nervous wondering how they could stop his campaign, to which supporters cried: “You can’t!”

Potential record turnout

Voters will turn up at more than 250 sites around Nevada to take part in the caucuses, and officials say they have taken steps to avoid the chaos that a malfunctioning app caused in Iowa by switching to a system with multiple backups using paper, phones and iPads.

Democratic National Committee Tom Perez expressed confidence that the Nevada caucuses will go smoothly.

He told reporters at a caucus site at the Bellagio hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip that the goal in Saturday’s caucuses is to release the results as soon as possible but “first and foremost, to get it right.”

Nevada officials say they have taken steps to avoid the chaos that a malfunctioning app caused in Iowa by switching to a system with multiple backups using paper, phones and iPads. (David Ryder/Reuters)

Four days of early voting in Nevada this week drew more than 75,000 Democrats, more than half first-time voters, putting the party in position to surpass the turnout record of 118,000 in 2008, when Barack Obama’s candidacy electrified the party.

At a Democratic debate in Nevada on Wednesday, candidates launched scathing attacks on Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, who has been rising in the polls on the back of a self-funded advertising blitz but is not competing in Nevada.

The next primary will be Feb. 29 in South Carolina, followed by the Super Tuesday contests in 14 states on March 3 that pick more than one-third of the pledged delegates who will help select a Democratic nominee.

Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren greets a young person while visiting a caucus site at Coronado High School in Henderson, Nevada, on Saturday. (David Ryder/Reuters)

Trump, who narrowly lost Nevada to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, visited Las Vegas on Friday and predicted another round of Iowa-style chaos for the Democrats at the caucuses.

“With your help this November we’re going to defeat the radical socialist Democrats and we are going to win Nevada in a big, beautiful landslide,” he said.

Diverse voter base

Nevada is the first nominating state with a diverse population after contests in predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire. More than four of every 10 voters in the Nevada Democratic caucuses in 2016 were non-white, according to entrance polls.

Sanders has led national polls among Hispanics, who represented about one-fifth of the Democratic electorate in the 2016 Nevada caucus. He has led the last five opinion polls in the state.

Warren held an evening event in Las Vegas on Friday, but before a smaller crowd than Sanders.

Sanders lost Nevada to Clinton by five percentage points during his first presidential bid in 2016, but this time he faces a far more splintered field that includes three centrist candidates – Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar – all vying to win votes of the party’s moderate wing.

Buttigieg and Klobuchar lag in support among non-white voters, who are a core part of the Democratic electorate and typically a significant factor in primary battles.

Buttigieg’s campaigning on Friday included meetings with Native American tribal leaders to discuss protections for public lands and the environment.

Biden is counting on a robust showing next week in South Carolina, where he has enjoyed strong support among the state’s sizable bloc of African-Americans, although Sanders has pulled even with him among black voters in some recent polls.

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