RENO, Nev. — Like many things in the state of sin and gambling, today’s Democratic caucus has become something of a freak show — complete with complaints of mob-boss-style voter intimidation.
In the latest twist, the Democrats who want to be the next president spent most of yesterday trading accusations of intimidation and sparring over a Republican president.
Starting at 11 a.m. today, voters can gather in schools, churches and nine caucus sites set up in casinos along the Las Vegas Strip to stand up for their favorite candidate.
Organization is key, and all of the campaigns acknowledge the endorsement from the powerful Culinary Workers Union was a big boost to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who won the Iowa caucuses and came in second in the New Hampshire primary.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said her campaign had received a “flood” of phone calls and e-mails about intimidation coming from those union members.
“The evidence is pretty compelling,” Mrs. Clinton said. When pressed, she cited press and “blog accounts.”
The Clinton campaign said it was told workers would be fired if they didn’t caucus for Mr. Obama, and said some at the Hilton hotel were told if they supported someone other than Mr. Obama they “won’t be transported to caucus sites.”
During an interview with a Las Vegas radio show yesterday morning, a woman who identified herself only as Janet told Mrs. Clinton she is a casino worker and a member of the culinary union but supports the former first lady.
“You have got a lot of support, just to let you know not all of the culinary people are going with Obama,” Janet said.
Mrs. Clinton thanked her and asked her to spread the word.
“I want people to make the decision they believe in,” she said. “I hear so much from people in the culinary union who you know feel maybe like they’ve been a little intimidated, but they are standing up and they are speaking out.”
Later in Elko, Mrs. Clinton gave a slightly different account, telling reporters that Janet said she was “told by the culinary union who to caucus for.”
“I’m afraid some people may feel they can’t come or they can’t support the candidate of their choice,” she told voters in Elko. “I don’t think that’s right.”
The Clinton campaign also jumped on remarks Mr. Obama made about Republicans and former President Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, which later endorsed his candidacy.
Mr. Obama said Mr. Reagan “tapped into” an optimism and a “return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,” prompting Clinton supporters to cry foul.
Obama supporters said the issue was a “distortion” and said like Mr. Reagan created “Reagan Democrat,” Mr. Obama has inspired “Obama Republicans” who will be necessary to spark change in the country.
Mr. Obama also said, “I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10 to 15 years in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.”
Mrs. Clinton keyed off his “party of ideas” comments, wondering whether he would want to privatize Social Security or block increases in the minimum wage.
“It’s a fair question to ask him which ideas he’s praising,” she said.
But in 2002, former President Bill Clinton gave a speech in New York blasting his own party with a similar message.
“Democrats have to have ideas to win,” he said, according to an article on Salon.com. “We were missing in action in national security, and we had no positive plan for America’s domestic future.”
Despite the political drama, not everyone is paying attention.
The big news is the Miss America contestants who are in town and the opening of a new multimillion-dollar casino, the Palazzo.
Interviews with taxi drivers and hotel staffers this week have revealed voters who are passionate about the candidates, and who can name things they like about Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
But most have lists of reasons why they won’t participate in the caucuses today.
They can’t get off work, or they don’t like or understand the process. They are excited about Democrats winning the White House — so they say nothing will stop them from voting in November’s general election.
Some blackjack dealers even said it will be tough for local gamblers to leave the tables should they be on a winning streak as the caucuses begin.