The Democratic duel in the desert over today’s Nevada caucuses is a high-stakes test for Hillary Clinton, who desperately needs a win over a surging Bernie Sanders to dispel the perception her campaign has run aground.

“Clinton I think knows how important this is,” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Reno. “She has a lot on the line. She loses this, then South Carolina is her absolute firewall.”

Herzik said Clinton’s campaign redoubled its efforts this week after polls showed the race tightening. Both the teachers union and SEIU members have been walking Nevada neighborhoods getting members, friends and neighbors to turn out for the former secretary of state, he said.

After being caught off-guard by Sanders’ once longshot candidacy, Clinton now needs decisive triumphs in Nevada and next Saturday’s South Carolina primary. She pulled out a slim win in Iowa that the Vermont U.S. senator cast as a “moral victory” for his campaign, then she suffered a humiliating 22-point defeat in once-friendly New Hampshire.

“Clinton wants a solid victory — more than just a hair’s breadth, as she’s had before,” said David Fott, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “She needs a substantial victory of a few points or so. For Sanders … she’s led by so much, I think a close second wouldn’t hurt him very much.”

The former first lady once held a commanding lead in the polls in Nevada — a Gravis Marketing poll last March had her ahead of Sanders 61-7 percent.

But a new CNN/ORC Nevada survey on Wednesday showed her with just a one-point lead over Sanders, 48-47 percent. Worse yet for Clinton, a Fox News poll released Thursday night showed Sanders leading nationally, 47-44 percent — the first such poll that didn’t have her ahead.

Sanders, meanwhile, needs to prove he can win minority voters. Critics have downplayed his strong showing in Iowa and dominant victory in New Hampshire as just a nearby Vermonter capturing two predominantly white states.

“If he wins here — in a state that is a diverse state — particularly if there’s a large Hispanic turnout at the caucus, then he will show that he can do well with groups it was thought he couldn’t do well with,” Fott said. “That’s likely to create a good deal of enthusiasm for his campaign.”

But with even a narrow win in Nevada — where 28 percent of the population is Hispanic and 9 percent is black — Sanders could prove minorities, too, are latching on to his message.

And that could be a big boost in South Carolina, where 61 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2008 were women and 56 percent were black. Clinton currently holds a comfortable lead there.

The caucuses are notoriously unpredictable. Adding to the flukiness, the massive Culinary Workers Union — some 57,000 strong — opted not to endorse a candidate this year. Fott said that may signal there’s a sizable faction within the union that supports Sanders.

“Unions like to back winners, and so it shows she’s not seen as a sure thing anymore,” Fott said.


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