O'Malley and Sanders give Clinton run for her money at Nevada caucus dinner
Senator Bernie Sanders (Brookings Institution/Flickr)

Hillary Clinton found herself in an unexpected battle for the support of primary voters in Nevada, as Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley impressed at a caucus dinner in Las Vegas on Wednesday night.

The Nevada caucuses, scheduled for 20 February, are the third primary to occur, making Nevada a crucial state for a candidate hoping to build momentum.

In front of a raucous crowd of 2,200 people armed with yellow plastic vuvuzelas, hand-pumped red squeak-horns and flashing blue air-traffic-control sticks, the three candidates focused on setting out their core policy areas rather than addressing each other directly – what direct ire they had was reserved for Donald Trump.

But from long before the candidates emerged, Sanders’ supporters were by far the noisiest and most vocally enthusiastic. Several times, chants went up of: “Bernie! Bernie!” before they were drowned out by general cheers. A small coterie held aloft a rainbow H for Hillary, but as Born in the USA played the candidates in, again, the chants of Sanders’ supporters drowned out the others.

The strong and vocal support for Sanders could signal a problem for Clinton in a state which she had previously thought relatively safe – even a stronghold . Sanders, after all, only hired a state director here in October, while the Clinton campaign has had staff in the state since last April.

And while Clinton still maintains a commanding lead in the polls, some signs are emerging that she may not be in as strong a position here as she would like. Politico reported on Wednesday that Erin Bilbray, once one of Clinton’s most loyal supporters in the Nevada Democratic party, had endorsed the Vermont senator.

Martin O’Malley, despite languishing far behind both Clinton and Sanders in the polls, gave a barnstorming speech that impressed many in the room with its concrete policy proposals, and which won growing applause among an audience largely – and audibly – composed of either die-hard Clinton or die-hard Sanders supporters.

“My experience is different from my competitors,” O’Malley said. “My experience is as an executive, a mayor and a governor. Getting things done. Actions, not words.” He pointed to the fact that Maryland was the first state in the union to pass a living wage, and that he had passed a climate change bill, the Dream Act , marriage equality and eliminated the death penalty as governor. “These were actions not words,” he said.

Sloan Hickson, a first-time voter from Henderson, Nevada, said that he’d come here with his mother – a Clinton supporter – in order to see what the different options were.

“O’Malley surprised me,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting anything, because I hadn’t heard much about him. But when he went up and started going, a lot of people I was sitting with really liked him.”

Katrina Brown, a union electrician from north Las Vegas, said that she had also been impressed by O’Malley’s speech, saying that he had come across as “someone who gets things done”. But, she said: “I’m working class, so Bernie resonated the most.”

In her speech, Clinton hit out at Republicans, and set out her stall as the most likely candidate to win the general election in November. “In January 2017 a new president is going to walk into the oval office,” she said, “and America can’t afford for it to be a Republican, who will rip away all the progress we’ve made.”

In a dig at Sanders, she said that America “deserve[s] a president who can get the job done … and not just on a few issues, but on all the problems we face”.

“If the Republicans aren’t worried about me, then why are hedge fund billionaires already running ads against me?” she asked. “Why are the Koch brothers?”

Sanders, for his part, struck back at Clinton – though obliquely – in a speech that otherwise strayed little from his usual core theme of income inequality and social justice. “Let me be very clear and be a little bit political here. All of us want to make sure that we defeat rightwing extremism, that we make certain that no Republican becomes president,” he said. “But let me be very clear. That result will not happen with establishment politics and establishment economics.”

The gulf between the Sanders and Clinton support was very visible. While the one spoke, the supporters of the other – Clinton’s camp sat stage right, Sanders’ stage left – sat in near-total silence.

But among the less-committed, the evening was, in general, encouraging. “I think that whoever wins [the nomination],” Brown said, “we’ll be OK.”

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