Presidential candidate Barack Obama won a key national labor endorsement Wednesday, a coup that could boost the Democrat's candidacy against Hillary Rodham Clinton in Nevada's nominating contest.
Leaders of 450,000-member UNITE HERE announced the endorsement in a news conference in Las Vegas Wednesday, the day after Obama narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary to Clinton.
The endorsement was made on behalf of Nevada's largest union, the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, and UNITE HERE, its parent organization. The endorsement is Obama's first from a major national union.
"Our organization and our members will do everything in our power to see that he reaches the White House this fall, because we know he will bring working Americans with him," UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor said.
Culinary secretary-treasurer D. Taylor praised the senator's work with a sister union in Chicago and said Obama would appeal across the union's diverse ranks. He took a jab at the mostly white electorate that had so far shaped the race in New Hampshire and Iowa.
"We're not just Wonderbread here, we got pumpernickel, we got whole wheat, we got rye. We're excited about that. That's America. That's why Senator Obama excites us and excites the country," Taylor said, following cheers and the union chant "Si se puede."
Obama chanted the English translation, "Yes we can," in his concession speech Tuesday.
Clinton's strong Nevada support
The move could affect the race in Nevada, where Clinton has long enjoyed solid support from the Democratic establishment and a hefty lead in the polls. Obama has sought support there outside the pool of experienced activists.
The union, representing hotel, restaurant and laundry workers in Nevada's casino industry, is the largest and best organized labor group in the state. It has the potential of steering thousands of voters to the state's Jan. 19 caucus.
"The technology they use is shoe leather," said Ted Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "This is an experienced and politically savvy outfit."
The union's skeptics point to its large number of immigrants, roughly 45 percent, and suggest many are not registered to vote. They also note the union has left itself little time to rally its ranks around Obama.
It was still unclear Wednesday whether the Clinton campaign, fresh off its surprise win in New Hampshire, would compete at full throttle in Nevada. As the Clinton camp seemed headed toward a New Hampshire loss early Tuesday, it contemplated pulling resources out of Nevada and South Carolina to focus on Feb. 5 states.
In a sign that Clinton was, at least for now, still in the fight, her Nevada campaign came up with a counterpunch to the Culinary announcement.
Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley announced her support of Clinton on a conference call with reporters. Berkley, who represents Las Vegas, and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, had said they would stay neutral.
Service employees also endorsed Obama
Obama also picked up the endorsement of the Nevada chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which voted to endorse him Tuesday.
The unions' decisions are a blow to former Sen. John Edwards, who finished third in New Hampshire and is struggling to prevent a two-person race between Obama and Clinton.
Edwards had attempted to position himself as the labor candidate in a state where nearly two-thirds of Democratic voters are union members.
With labor now split, Edwards is outmanned by the better-funded Obama and Clinton operations. He has not yet run television ads here, while Clinton and Obama have been airing positive, introductory commercials for three weeks.
Aides say Edwards plans to spend most of his time in the next week campaigning in South Carolina, the state where he was born, ahead of its Jan. 26 Democratic primary.
Larger role for unions
The role of unions is amplified by the expectation that relatively few caucus-goers will show up in Nevada, a previously irrelevant contest that has never played a significant role in picking the nominee. Even among Democrats who say they are engaged in the race, many don't know what a caucus is or why Nevada's matters.
State party officials and campaigns are not expecting more than 10 percent of registered Democrats, around 45,000 people, to participate.
Awareness is even spottier on the Republican side. The Nevada Republican Party's caucus has been overshadowed by the primary in South Carolina, which shares the Jan. 19 date. The GOP field has given Nevada little attention.
Clinton has visited the state eight times, Obama nine. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has spent the most time on the ground. Richardson played up his experience with Western issues and made a strong push among the state's Hispanic community.
That group's turnout will be closely watched on caucus day. Hispanics make up nearly a quarter of Nevada's population, but far less of its electorate. The Culinary union and the state party have been working to register Hispanic voters for months.
Clinton has secured some key endorsements from local Hispanic leaders and recently won the backing of an influential Spanish-language newspaper.