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The Memo: Vegas debate gives Democrats last chance to swing Nevada voters

The Memo: Vegas debate gives Democrats last chance to swing Nevada voters
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Democrats are looking toward Wednesday night’s debate in Nevada as their last opportunity to shift voter views before Saturday’s statewide caucuses.

The third contest in the party’s nominating calendar has taken on greater importance as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Trump was right about 'trying to end endless wars' Democrats battle over best path for Puerto Rico Bernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' MORE (I-Vt.) tries to solidify his front-runner status, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Olympics, climate on the agenda for Biden meeting with Japanese PM Boehner on Afghanistan: 'It's time to pull out the troops' MORE seeks to pull his campaign out of a tailspin and several other candidates aim to prove they can appeal to non-white voters. 

“I think it is all still up in the air,” said Katie Robbins, a Democratic consultant in Nevada. “Sen. Sanders has been on the ground here for a while, but so have a lot of the other campaigns. I don’t think anything is a done deal.”

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Critically, the debate hosted by NBC News and MSNBC will also be the first clash in which former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergHolder, Yates lead letter backing Biden pick for Civil Rights Division at DOJ The truth behind companies' 'net zero' climate commitments The strategy Biden needs to pass his infrastructure plan MORE is expected to participate. Bloomberg is not competing in Nevada, instead planning to enter the 2020 race on Super Tuesday, March 3.

Bloomberg became eligible for Wednesday’s debate after the Democratic National Committee (DNC) lifted a restriction that had excluded candidates from the stage unless they received donations from a certain number of supporters. Bloomberg, who often ranks among the world’s 20 richest people, is self-funding his campaign and not accepting campaign contributions.

Bloomberg received the 10 percent support needed in one last state or national poll in order to qualify, registering 19 percent in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released early Tuesday. A campaign spokeswoman told The Hill over the weekend that if Bloomberg reaches that threshold he will debate the five other candidates who have already secured a spot on stage.

The former mayor is not known for his charisma, and his vast expenditure on TV advertising — around $350 million since launching his campaign in late November — has allowed him to get his message out without facing rebuttals from rivals, as he would on the debate stage. 

Some candidates’ campaigns have bemoaned the DNC’s shift of the debate rules in a way that facilitates Bloomberg, but others have indicated they would welcome the chance to confront him on stage. 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after pushback from Klobuchar, Lee Lobbying world MORE (D-Minn.) told reporters on Friday that she would welcome Bloomberg’s participation because “I can't beat him on the airwaves, but I can beat him on the debate stage.” 

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The stakes are also high for the state itself, and its Democratic Party apparatus, in light of the fiasco that enveloped the Iowa caucuses earlier this month.

The Nevada caucuses need to avoid anything like that if they are to consolidate their relatively recent centrality to the nominating process. The Nevada caucuses have been among the first contests only since 2008.

The uncertainty over the state of the race — and the importance of the debate in Las Vegas — is heightened by the dearth of reliable polling.

As of Saturday evening, there had only been one recent poll in the Silver State. 

Sanders led with 25 percent in that survey, by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and WPA Intelligence. Biden was second with 18 percent, followed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats reintroduce bill to block US from using nuclear weapons first CEO who gave employees K minimum wage says revenue tripled 6 years later Forgiving K in school loans would free 36 million student borrowers from debt: data MORE (D-Mass.) at 13 percent, businessman Tom SteyerTom SteyerWhy we should be leery of companies entering political fray Steyer says he has 'no plans' to run for public office again GOP targets ballot initiatives after progressive wins MORE’s 11 percent, and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegWhite House says gas tax won't be part of infrastructure bill The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden meets with bipartisan lawmakers for infrastructure negotiations Senate Republicans label Biden infrastructure plan a 'slush fund' MORE (D) and Klobuchar tied at 10 percent.

The poll was conducted from Feb. 11 — the day of the New Hampshire primary — to Feb. 13. That means it should have captured some movement in the wake of that primary, but perhaps not the entirety of any shift. 

Sanders won New Hampshire, with Buttigieg a close second, but the biggest surprises were the strong third-place finish by Klobuchar and the poor performances posted by Warren and Biden, who trailed in fourth and fifth, respectively.

Klobuchar’s surge in New Hampshire also underlined the potential power of debates. The Minnesota senator had looked like an also-ran after a fifth-place finish in Iowa. But she shone during the final debate prior to the New Hampshire primary, held four days before the Granite State voted. The momentum buoyed her through primary day and gave her campaign its best moment. 

Klobuchar and Buttigieg have both struggled with non-white voters, however — and that could be about to become a much bigger problem.

In 2016, according to exit polls, 19 percent of Democratic caucus-goers in Nevada were Latino and 13 percent were black — figures far in excess of those seen in Iowa or New Hampshire.

The candidates will take to the stage on Wednesday with the sense that Nevada is Sanders’s race to lose.

But one complicating factor is the spat between him and his supporters on one side, and the powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226 on the other.

The union — described by Robbins, the consultant, as “an incredibly powerful force…one of the most powerful organizations in the state of Nevada” — took the unusual step of issuing a flier last week that singled out for criticism Sanders’s “Medicare For All” health care proposal.

The union’s objection was that the Sanders plan would eliminate the health coverage the union had negotiated over decades.

But there was a silver lining for the Vermont senator: many observers had seen the flier as presaging a union endorsement of another candidate. But the union announced on Thursday that it would not endorse anyone before the caucuses.

As befits a clash in Las Vegas, the candidates who take the stage on Wednesday night will be playing for the highest stakes.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE’s presidency.

--This report was updated at 6:14 a.m.