LAS VEGAS — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is campaigning through Nevada with a laserlike focus on local issues — holding small forums with voters about economic woes and the Yucca Mountain.
During her roundtable yesterday on the nuclear waste site here, panelists praised the New York Democrat for the work her husband's administration did with Yucca, and applauded her saying the toxic waste also is a homeland security problem.
"It's an issue that concerns every American," she said. Later, Mrs. Clinton told reporters, "I think we need to go back and start over. We should not be guided by politics, we should be guided by science. We have a serious problem, how are we going to handle it."
While Sen. Barack Obama drew big crowds in nearby Henderson, Mrs. Clinton offered her Yucca Mountain policy roundtable with nine Nevada panelists before an audience of fewer than 200 people.
"Thanks very much for being here and doing this," gushed Judy Treichel, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force.
Another panelist, a nuclear waste consultant, said Americans don't realize that moving the waste across the country would mean residents in Atlanta, St. Louis and elsewhere would be "bathed in this radiation."
Mrs. Clinton nodded and lamented the concern over the dangers of transporting the waste.
"It's not only the fear of an accident," she said. "One of the big challenges facing terrorists who are trying to get a hold of radioactive material is getting enough of it ... if we have this much movement of this much radioactive material, it's already inside the United States."
The government first studied Yucca Mountain, located 90 miles from Las Vegas, as a potential site for storing nuclear waste three decades ago. President Bush in 2002 approved a measure to clear the way to open the repository in 2017. There is now about 50,000 tons of the solid, ceramiclike material stored at nuclear power plants across the nation, and 2,000 more tons of material is produced every year.
Environmental groups and many Democrats have vowed to block the site's opening, and now politicians are scrambling to come up with another solution for storing the radioactive material. The Clinton administration opposed the site and delayed its opening for years, including vetoing a bill in 2000 to start temporarily storing waste at Yucca. Most Nevadans oppose the site.
Mr. Obama, of Illinois, yesterday told voters Mrs. Clinton was misleading them with a Nevada mailer that accuses him of having a "plan with a trillion dollar tax increase on America's hard-working families" by making changes to Social Security.
"Nevada families need to keep more of their hard-earned dollars, not less," read the mailer, paid for by the Clinton campaign. Under a photo of Mr. Obama, the mailer states that he wants to "send more of Nevada families' hard-earned dollars to Washington."
Mr. Obama has told voters he would deal with the "long-term problem" of a system soon to be overburdened by 78 million retiring baby boomers by raising the cap on the payroll tax, which is levied only on the first $97,000 of income. He said that 97 percent of Nevada residents earn less than that cap.
People making more than $200,000 or $250,000 "can afford to pay a little more on payroll tax," he said. "Maybe she thinks the top 3 percent of the population is average, middle-class America. It is not."
Mrs. Clinton defended the mailer, saying his plan to raise the cap on the payroll tax amounts to the tax increase, and giving examples of workers who would be hit by his plan.
"It doesn't just fall on the wealthiest of Americans," she said. "You can find people here in Las Vegas who would be affected."
She cited a North Las Vegas police captain, a school superintendent and public service workers living in "high wage and high cost areas" such as New York.
"They would see their taxes go up two, three thousand dollars," she said. "I think there are better approaches to solving the long-term challenges that we face in Social Security."
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said last night the mailer sounded like the "politics of scare tactics," and he blasted Mrs. Clinton for not taking a stand on Social Security.
"I have sat beside her in so many forums and debates now. ... I've heard her answer the question 30 times, and I have no idea what she would do," he said at a carpenters union hall here.
"She says she's not going to cut benefits, she"s not going to raise the retirement age and she won"t raise taxes. Well, I'm sorry, those are the options. She's just not willing to take a position."
Mr. Edwards says he would change the payroll tax to target people earning more than $200,000.
The Clinton campaign also leveled charges that Mr. Obama's newest television ad saying he would pass universal health care is dishonest since his plan does not mandate insurance coverage as hers does.
A Nevada pediatrician argued that Mr. Obama's claim "is really not accurate" and lauded Mrs. Clinton's plan as "truly universal."
Mr. Obama has told voters the difference in their plans is minimal and says his plan makes health care more affordable.
Also yesterday, the Democratic National Committee intervened in a lawsuit that threatened the state party's established rules for Saturday's caucus. A federal court will hear the case today and decide whether casino workers can participate in the caucus via at-large precincts set up along the Las Vegas Strip.
The nine at-large sites were approved by the state party in March and ratified by the DNC last fall, but a teachers union and several Democrats sued to shut them down, arguing they would allocate too many delegates and discount delegates from more rural areas.
Some Obama supporters think the lawsuit was only brought to try and diminish the influence of his endorsement from the culinary workers union, which boasts thousands of strip workers as members.