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In Nevada, Democrats chase Sanders in a contest that could be make-or-break

Supporters listened as Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont spoke at a campaign event in Carson City, Nev.., on Sunday.
Supporters listened as Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont spoke at a campaign event in Carson City, Nev.., on Sunday.Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — Six leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination all made their way here this weekend, furiously campaigning in, around, and across a city where the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas towers above the Strip.

The Nevada caucuses aren’t until Saturday, but voting has already begun: After a rally in the city over the weekend, Senator Bernie Sanders and nearly 1,000 supporters marched about a mile to an early voting site.

Long overshadowed by the months-long high-stakes campaigns that sweep through Iowa and New Hampshire every four years, this year’s Nevada Democratic caucuses could turn out to be the most important contest in determining which Democrat will face off against President Trump this fall.

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And for Democrats who say they’re concerned about how Sanders might fare in a general election contest against Trump, Nevada presents an opportunity to stop what increasingly appears to be the Vermont senator’s march toward the nomination.

But with less than a week to go before the caucuses, any such movement has failed to manifest itself in a meaningful way, as each candidate seeks to answer questions about their own perceived electoral problems.

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., performed about as well as Sanders in the heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Nevada is an opportunity to prove that he can win over diverse communities.

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is in need of a serious boost, and a state with two female US senators and a political landscape built by labor unions affords one of her best remaining opportunities.

If Senator Amy Klobuchar wants to turn a strong result in New Hampshire into a lasting campaign, she’ll need to have a solid showing in Nevada.

Former vice president Joe Biden and businessman Tom Steyer, who have both polled strongly in the South Carolina primary that will be held a week after Nevada, may not be able to weather a third straight poor performance after Iowa and New Hampshire.

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And looming over the landscape like the Stratosphere tower is Michael Bloomberg, who is not participating in the caucuses but has built a campaign apparatus that is prepared to take on whomever emerges.

“For every candidate not named Michael Bloomberg, the Nevada contest, when they look back on it, could be the most pivotal moment of their campaigns,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who served as Hillary Clinton’s communications director in the 2016 campaign. “And for Michael Bloomberg, the results in Nevada are also important in framing what kind of contest he might be in on Super Tuesday.”

Clark County is home not just to Las Vegas but to an estimated 70 percent of the state’s voters, demographics that naturally drew every major candidate. All weekend, the contenders criss-crossed the county:

  • Biden was introduced by US Representative Steven Horsford to a half-full union hall.
  • Warren stopped at a Latin outdoor marketplace between rallies, where she bought an agua de sandía, and wondered about meeting locals while she battled a cold.
  • Klobuchar held various events in the area and stopped by a Black history festival on a warm Saturday afternoon.
  • And around the same time, Buttigieg was indoors wearing a full suit and tie for a “fireside chat” at the Latino Chamber of Commerce, where he sprinkled in some Spanish.

But Sanders, who expressed confidence after his festive rally and march, appears poised to win the most votes in a third straight contest.

Late last week, a poll from the Las Vegas Review-Journal found Sanders the clear front-runner in Nevada with 25 percent support to Biden’s 18 percent. Warren was in third with 13 percent, followed by Steyer with 11 percent. Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who are only now putting in major resources into the state after focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire, each had 10 percent.

After a split win in Iowa, and an outright win in New Hampshire, a third win in a row could give Sanders considerable momentum to take the Democratic nomination.

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Establishment and more moderate Democrats have expressed concern in recent days that should he become the nominee, Sanders would be an electoral disaster. However, any concerted “Stop Bernie” effort has been hard to spot. The only negative ads on the air in the state are against Sanders, but they’re funded by a pro-Israel group rather than a rival.

Then there are the tensions between Sanders and the very powerful Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 workers in Las Vegas area casinos, restaurants and hotels, a potentially massive bloc in a state where just 82,000 people participated in the 2016 Democratic caucuses.

The union blasted candidates like Sanders and Warren, who favor a Medicare for All health care model over private, employer-sponsored insurance. The union’s contention is that they negotiated hard for the health benefits they get for their members and don’t want to give that up. They fear that a government-run plan would offer benefits that are actually less generous than those in their current plan.

The ensuing back-and-forth between the union and Sanders’ supporters meant days of headlines about how Sanders was in a fight with the union.

But Sanders appears to have deep support among Latino voters. An analysis of results from Iowa and New Hampshire from the University of California Los Angeles found that Sanders led among these communities by as much as 20 percentage points.

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And although Latinos make up a very small percentage of residents in those two states, they are 30 percent of Nevada’s population.

Leo Murrieta, 33, the director of the Latino rights group Make the Road Nevada, which endorsed Sanders a year ago, said his group will deliver 3,500 voters to Sanders.

“Those candidates just now talking to our community in the week leading up to the caucuses are just way too late,” said Murrieta.

Also helping Sanders is the fact that establishment Democrats and moderates have yet to figure out which candidate they support. On Saturday, former US Senate majority leader Harry Reid voted at the East Las Vegas Library only to tell reporters later that he voted for an option called “uncommitted.”

“So many of these candidates I consider to be good friends and I don’t want to tip the scales,” said Reid. Governor Steve Sisolak, the first Democratic governor in the state in two decades, also held off on an endorsement.

Perhaps more tellingly, Clark County Democratic chairwoman Donna West, who has Warren’s catchphrase “Nevertheless, she persisted” tattooed on her left arm, also declined to reveal her preference.

None of this will be a problem for Republican voters in the state. The party canceled its caucuses on Saturday, a nod to President Trump’s certain nomination.

Not to be outdone, the president will hold a major rally Friday night anyway, seeking for a third straight time to overshadow the Democratic contest immediately before it begins.

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James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.