Showdown in Vegas: Dems prepare for Nevada debate

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- The real action in Las Vegas Thursday night won't be at the high-dollar tables along the Strip.

Thursday will be the first Democratic debate since front-runner Clinton stumbled at a debate in Pennsylvania.

It will be at the Thomas and Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That's where CNN and the Nevada Democratic Party will host a presidential debate at 5 p.m. (7 p.m. CT).

So why Nevada? When it comes to the race for the White House, the Silver State isn't the first one that comes to mind. Candidates trudging through the snow in Iowa and New Hampshire are the most obvious images.

But complaints over the years about a lack of diversity in Iowa and New Hampshire led the Democratic Party to take action, moving Nevada's caucus up to mid-January in the primary calendar.

They picked Nevada because of its growing Latino population and strong union workforce, among other reasons.

"Nevada got picked for both micro and macro political reasons," said Democratic consultant Jennifer Backus.

"On the macro level, they very smartly pitched their caucus as a Western caucus, highlighting the importance of the area, the growing clout of the Hispanic vote, issues like energy independence, water and growth."

"They also got picked because of the clout, power, vision and tenacity of Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and Nevada's senior senator. He pulled out all the stops to get the caucus -- phone calls, PowerPoints and power plays."

When it comes to the general election, Nevada is an important state for the Democrats.

President Bush won Nevada in 2000 and 2004, but the Democrats came close and hope to close the deal next November. Moving up Nevada's Democratic caucus and holding a party-sanctioned debate here could pay off come Election Day 2008.

"They have guaranteed that our Democratic nominee will be versed with key issues facing Nevada and very familiar with voters of the state," said Backus.

Among the issues of concern to Nevada voters: energy independence, nuclear waste storage, water resources, economic growth, homeland defense and illegal immigration. Expect some of those to come up in the debate.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has a large lead over her rivals among Nevada Democratic caucus-goers, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Wednesday.

But the debate will be the first showdown for the Democratic presidential hopefuls since Clinton's stumble at a debate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

That's where the senator from New York was accused of inconsistency on her answer to a question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Criticism of Clinton's response was discussed in the media for days afterward.

Clinton admitted to CNN Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley in an exclusive interview that the debate was not her best performance. "I wasn't at my best," she said.

Since then, Clinton's campaign admitted to planting a question with a student attending a Clinton campaign event in Iowa. Rival campaigns from both political parties criticized Clinton for that incident as well.

"Hillary Clinton's still the front-runner, but since the October 30 debate in Philadelphia, her momentum has stalled. Some polls -- nationally and in New Hampshire -- show her lead over Sen. Barack Obama narrowing," says CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider.

"Clinton's on the hot seat. She has to get rid of the notion that she can't answer a question directly or that as a front-runner she is just playing out the clock and wants to be cautious above all else," says Gloria Borger, CNN's other Senior Political Analyst.

"Anyone paying attention in the days since the last debate would hear the sounds of a calendar closing in. The rhetoric in both the [John] Edwards and Obama campaigns has hit new decibels, aimed at driving down Hillary Clinton's poll numbers," says Crowley.

"From Clinton's two-week struggle to explain her position on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, to the planted question in one of her town hall meetings, Clinton has given them new ammo."

So which of the seven candidates on stage will make the most of that new ammo?

"Look for Obama and Edwards to seize any and all opportunities to push those new elements into the storyline which now includes her refusal to talk specifics on how to fix social security, her [2002] vote for the Iraq war and her opposition now, along with complaints about the lack of access to papers from Clinton's years as first lady," says Crowley.

"John Edwards needs to watch it, and Barack Obama needs to step it up. Both need to make sure they can't be accused of personal attacks."
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Schneider agreed, saying that "for John Edwards and Barack Obama, the Las Vegas debate looks like the time to strike."

With this in mind, get set for an action-packed debate when the Democrats face off in the shadow of the Strip.


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