ELKO, NEV. – On the eve of the Nevada presidential caucuses, Amy Klobuchar was separated from Las Vegas, the state’s largest city, by hundreds of miles of desert.
Instead she found herself in Elko, a city of about 20,000 people, nestled next to the Ruby Mountains and dotted with Western shops and cowboy-themed museums. To a crowd of more than 100 people packed into a convention center hall, the only thing Klobuchar mentioned more than President Donald Trump was cattle.
“I was the only person [on the debate stage] who knew that cattle is a big deal around here,” she said to cheers. That gave her pause: “Huh, that didn’t happen in Las Vegas, amazing.”
Klobuchar was appealing directly to rural Nevada voters ahead of the caucuses Saturday, in the third state to cast ballots in the fractured Democratic presidential race. It comes at a critical moment for Klobuchar, who surged to finish third in New Hampshire and needs to prove to voters that the strong showing wasn’t just a moment. A disappointing finish could muddle her message of energy and electability ahead of the South Carolina primary next weekend and, more important, Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states, including Minnesota, will weigh in on the race.
But she faces challenges in a state like Nevada, which, outside of rural areas like Elko, has a far more diverse electorate than Iowa and New Hampshire. Recent polls show Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders leading in the state, with Klobuchar in fifth and sixth place, struggling to break 10% in support from caucusgoers.
Her final swing through the state Friday took her from Elko to Reno, both cities in Nevada’s Second Congressional District, home to rural communities and more moderate Democratic voters, as well as conservatives who could potentially break away from Trump.
“What I’m about is actually not leaving stones unturned, and not representing just half of America but all of America,” Klobuchar said. “To me, that means going not just where it’s easy to get to, going not just where it’s always comfortable, but where it’s uncomfortable.”
Pamella Myrick showed up to her Elko event after watching Klobuchar in the Nevada debate. She voted for Trump in 2016 but is interested in supporting Klobuchar if she shows viability in the race.
“I’ve been watching the debates and I think she’s a really kick-ass woman. I’d pick her any day over [2016 Democratic presidential candidate] Hillary Clinton,” Myrick said. “She’s also got experience, and that’s really important to me.”
Colleen Larks is trying to decide between former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Klobuchar. She’s worried about the momentum behind Sanders’ campaign and the failure of moderates to coalesce around a candidate.
“I don’t think Bernie can win,” she said. “I think those people who are moderate or people that may be Republican but are against Trump will still vote for Trump if Bernie Sanders is the alternative.”
Klobuchar will cap a busy stretch of campaigning in the state with a get-out-the-vote event Saturday at her campaign headquarters in Las Vegas. She’s had to play catch-up to other candidates in Nevada after focusing most of her time and resources in Iowa and New Hampshire.
She’s spent seven figures on ads in Nevada, including one Spanish-language spot, and Klobuchar and surrogates have been spreading out across the state this week. But, she acknowledged, it’s been challenging.
“I don’t have the name identification, as you know, of some of the people in the race. I certainly don’t have the bank account of some of the people in the race,” Klobuchar said. “But what’s happened to us, is just one-by-one, through speeches and these public events and the debates, regular people have just started helping me.”
The Las Vegas Sun endorsed both Klobuchar and Biden, but other big players in Nevada politics have sat out endorsements. That includes former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Culinary Workers Union, which represents 60,000 casino, resort, bar, restaurant and other workers in the state.
The union signaled concerns about Sanders’ and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s support for Medicare for All, but it declined to throw its backing behind a specific candidate.
Klobuchar’s surprise finish in New Hampshire brought with it the scrutiny that comes with front-runner status. She got unfavorable headlines when she failed to name Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel López Obrador. A joke she made about her fourth-grade Spanish teacher naming her “Elena” drew sharp criticism.
Nevada is a majority-minority state, where nearly one-third of residents are Latino. Raquel Cruz-Juarez, who attended a presidential forum on immigration issues in Las Vegas on Thursday, said she hasn’t landed on which candidate she’ll support yet but singled out Klobuchar as someone she won’t vote for.
“People are dying at the border, people are at risk of losing [their legal status], these are the kinds of issues that affect Nevadans every single day,” said Cruz-Juarez, who was born in Guatemala. “We don’t say change your name so that we can connect with you. We say listen to us, put us on your policy platform, let us lead the way. We don’t just want you to pander to us.”
Possibly signaling her challenges in Nevada, Klobuchar’s campaign said she will head to Minneapolis during the caucuses Saturday for a volunteer appreciation event. Whatever happens, Klobuchar has said she plans to push on to South Carolina and Super Tuesday.
Initially, the Nevada Democratic Party planned to use the same app that caused major problems in Iowa’s caucuses earlier this month, but it recently switched to paper ballots and forms voters can fill out on an iPad. Nevadans start caucusing Saturday afternoon, but some voted early, using a new system that asks voters to rank their top preferences. It was put in place after voters were frustrated with long wait times four years ago.
Vicki Volk caucused early and said she put Klobuchar as her first choice and Biden second. “But I hope it’s her,” she said. “I think she could win it if she’s given the chance.”