Supporters cheer for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., outside the Cashman Center before a Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2008. The Saturday caucus has drawn the Democratic race West to a diverse electorate and unfamiliar primary territory. Nevada voters have never weighed in this early in the race and rarely drawn candidates' attention. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
LAS VEGAS - A union with ties to Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton failed in court Thursday to prevent casino workers from caucusing at special precincts in Nevada.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge James Mahan was presumed to be a boost for Clinton rival Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential caucuses Saturday because he has been endorsed by the union representing many of the shift workers who will be able to use the precincts on the Las Vegas strip.
"State Democrats have a First Amendment right to association, to assemble and to set their own rules," Mahan said.
Nevada's Democratic Party approved creation of the precincts to make it easier for housekeepers, waitresses and bellhops to caucus during the day near work rather than have to do so in their neighborhoods.
The state teachers union, which has ties to Clinton, brought the suit against the special precincts shortly after local 226 of the Culinary Workers Union endorsed Obama for the Democratic nomination. The union is the largest in Nevada, with 60,000 members. The Clinton campaign said it was not involved in the suit.
The suit contended party rules allowing the precincts gave too much power to the casino workers and violated federal equal protection guarantees.
But the judge said, "We aren't voting here, we're caucusing. That's something that parties decide."
He said it is "up to the national party and the state party to promulgate these rules and enforce them."
The Democratic National Committee ratified the state party's rules in August.
The Obama campaign applauded the decision, and in a statement, criticized Clinton's operation.
"While the Clinton camp clearly believed the voices of workers should be silenced in service of their perceived political interest, they enjoyed a 25-point lead two months ago and have much of the party establishment in their camp. So, despite their inherent advantages we are pleased this should be a close and competitive contest Saturday," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton.
Opinion polls find Clinton, Obama and John Edwards in a statistical dead heat in the Nevada race. Each has made a vigorous bid for union support.
Opponents of the strip precincts said they could be more valuable in the delegate count than some sparsely populated counties, giving them too much clout. The Culinary Union said the suit was an attempt to disenfranchise its members. "Backers of Hillary Clinton are suing in court to take away our right to vote in the caucuses," a union flier said.
Under the rules, the nine at-large precincts will be open to any shift employee working within 2.5 miles of the strip. By one estimate, more than 700 of the roughly 10,000 delegates to the state party's presidential nominating convention could be selected at the casino caucuses, depending on turnout.
Obama has also collected the endorsement of the Nevada chapter of the Service Employees International Union. The close nature of the contest and the logistics of caucuses created an intense struggle for labor's support, given its ability to organize and mobilize.