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Sanders, Clinton scramble in Nevada

Mark Niquette
Bloomberg News

Alicia Hernandez sat on a sofa in a re-purposed Las Vegas strip-mall store on a sunny Sunday afternoon listening to a step-by-step explanation from a Bernie Sanders field office director about how a presidential caucus works.

Campaign volunteers and staffers at Bernie Sanders' Nevada headquarters try to overcome Hillary Clinton’s advantages in the state.

Hernandez, 23, a daughter of immigrants who’s studying floral design at the College of Southern Nevada, received an e-mail about the training session from Sanders’ campaign after liking what she saw on his website. She came to learn how to caucus for the Vermont senator instead of Hillary Clinton.

“Hillary doesn’t feel as genuine as Bernie Sanders,” Hernandez said, ticking off his support for free college tuition, universal health care, the middle class and immigration. “We want things to change.”

Sanders needs a lot of voters like Hernandez in Nevada to overcome Clinton’s advantages in the state, which holds the third Democratic presidential nominating contest on Saturday. But there are signs on the ground, such as his ability to rally people like Hernandez to his campaign, that Sanders is gaining on Clinton in the state, which she was counting on as a western firewall after losing in the New Hampshire primary and squeaking out a narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses.

As a caucus state, Nevada is notoriously hard to poll and there are few reliable indicators of how the contest will go. Jon Ralston, a long-time observer of Nevada politics who publishes the Ralston Reportswebsite, wrote in the Washington Post Tuesday that Sanders has been furiously funneling resources into the state. As a result, he wrote, Nevada is no longer a lock for Clinton and that within her campaign “panic is palpable.’’

Clinton has most of the major endorsements of elected officials and political leaders. She also learned from running here in 2008 against Barack Obama, even hiring some of his staff from that campaign, when she got more votes but he won more delegates.

For Sanders, it will be the best test so far of whether the enthusiasm he’s generating, especially among young people, first-time voters and Latinos, can beat her. If it works in Nevada, it’s a model that could help him extend the nominating contest for months. If it doesn’t, it could signal the difficulties Sanders’ insurgency would have going forward against Clinton.

“Asians are very family-oriented and want everything for their families, and I believe everything Hillary is for, is for our families,” said Cynthia Ameli.

Asian-American vote grows

Cynthia Ameli, a 57-year-old pharmacist, was used to African-Americans and Latinos organizing for candidates, but not members of her own ethnic community waving Obama campaign signs on the side of a Las Vegas thoroughfare in late 2012.

She keeps a collection of Asian-American campaign placards and buttons at her house, including new ones from the Hillary Clinton campaign, for which she volunteers.

Ameli sees Clinton as a natural fit. “Asians are very family-oriented and want everything for their families, and I believe everything Hillary is for, is for our families,” she said.

As Clinton and Sanders scrap for every vote before Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, they are competing for support among members of the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, one that both parties are trying to win over. Asian-Americans comprise 6 percent of the U.S. population and their numbers have increased 56 percent since 2000. In Nevada, Asian-Americans are 9 percent of the population.

Support split evenly

Asian-Americans encompass a diverse range of people, among them recent Chinese immigrants, Muslims from Pakistan, Filipino-American Catholics and U.S. citizens from Hawaii. Campaigns are paying attention.

“It’s a fast-growing population, it’s young, people are getting engaged,” said Shu-Yen Wei, who helps with Asian-American outreach for the Democratic National Committee. “That’s why people are interested.”

Since the 1990s, exit polls have found Asian-Americans voting increasingly Democratic during presidential elections, with 73 percent backing President Barack Obama in 2012. Analysts attributed that to the GOP’s criticism of illegal immigration.

But in the 2014 midterm elections, Asian voters appeared to split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Their numbers are small enough so that it’s difficult to rely on polling to determine their leanings.

Associated Press contributed.