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Feb. 22, 2020, 1:11 p.m. EST

Democrats face an important test in Nevada caucuses

Casinos on the Las Vegas Strip stand among 200 caucus locations hosting presidential caucuses Saturday, the third contest in a 2020 primary season so far marred by chaos and uncertainty in overwhelmingly white, rural states

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By Associated Press

An early voting location at the culinary workers union hall in Las Vegas. The Democratic presidential contest has moved to immigrant-heavy Nevada.

Just past the roulette wheel and slot machines, the smoky bars and blinking lights, Nevada Democrats are preparing to weigh in on their party’s presidential nomination fight.

Seven casino-resorts on the Las Vegas Strip stand among 200 caucus locations statewide that will host the presidential caucuses on Saturday, the third contest in a 2020 primary season that has so far been marred by chaos and uncertainty in overwhelmingly white, rural states. The exercise of democracy inside urban temples of excess is just one element that distinguishes the first presidential contest in the West, which will, more importantly, test the candidates’ strength with black and brown voters for the first time in 2020.

“Nevada represents an opportunity for these candidates to demonstrate their appeal to a larger swath of our country,” said state Attorney General Aaron Ford, a Democrat who is not endorsing a candidate in the crowded field.

Nevada’s population, which aligns more with the U.S. as a whole than the opening elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, is 29% Latino, 10% black and 9% Asian American and Pacific Islander.

The vote comes at a critical moment for the Democratic Party as self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders emerges as the clear front-runner and a half dozen more moderate candidates savage one another for the chance to emerge as the preferred alternative to Sanders. The ultimate winner will represent Democrats on the ballot against President Donald Trump in November.

Yet on the eve of the caucuses, questions lingered about Nevada Democrats’ ability to report election results quickly as new concerns surfaced about foreign interference in the 2020 contest.

Campaigning in California, Sanders confirmed reports that he had been briefed by U.S. officials about a month ago that Russia was trying to help his campaign as part of Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the election.

“It was not clear what role they were going to play,” Sanders said. “We were told that Russia, maybe other countries, are going to get involved in this campaign.”

He added: “Here’s the message to Russia: Stay out of American elections.”

Despite the distraction, Sanders enters Saturday increasingly confident, backed by strong support from Latinos and rank-and-file union workers who have warmed to his fiery calls to transform the nation’s economy and political system to help the working class.

In a fiery speech the night before the caucuses, Sanders lumped the “Democratic establishment” in with the corporate and Republican establishment, saying they can’t stop him. He said the establishment was “getting worried” about a multiracial coalition that wants higher wages and health care.

The outlook was dire for virtually everyone else.

Long before voting began, there was skepticism about Pete Buttigieg’s ability to win over a more diverse set of voters after strong finishes in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire. It was the opposite for Joe Biden, who struggled in Iowa and New Hampshire but looked to Nevada’s voters of color to prove he still has a viable path to the nomination.

The two women left in the race, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, were fighting for momentum, hoping to benefit from a sudden surge of outside money from newly created super PACs. Billionaire Tom Steyer has invested more than $12 million of his own money on television advertising in Nevada, according to data obtained by The Associated Press, which details the extent to which several candidates have gone all-in ahead of Saturday’s contest.

The pro-Warren Persist super PAC, created in recent days, is spending more money in Nevada this week than any other campaign or allied outside group. Persist, which hasn’t yet disclosed any donors and cannot legally coordinate with Warren’s campaign, has invested $902,000 this week in Nevada television on her behalf, according to spending data obtained by The AP. That’s more than Klobuchar’s and Biden’s campaigns have spent over the entire year.

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