Forget the coded messages, the oblique attacks, the indirect putdowns. When it came to courting Nevada voters, the Democratic presidential candidates had a brawl.

The week leading to the Nevada caucuses was one of the most contentious in the Democratic contest so far. The three Democratic candidates head to South Carolina, which holds its primary Jan. 26, with no sign the race will turn genteel in the South.

Backers of Hillary Rodham Clinton went to court in an unsuccessful effort to block special precinct caucuses seen as beneficial to Barack Obama. Clinton herself then charged that Obama wasn’t steadfast enough against a Nevada nuclear waste site.

Obama backers ran a Spanish language ad calling Clinton “shameless” and said the New York senator “does not respect our people.” Then Obama did a Vegas style standup routine that skewered her and got laughs to boot.

Pushed to the front of the presidential calendar by the Democratic National Committee, Nevada was the Democrats’ opportunity to tend to a different voting bloc. After competing in white, homogenous Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada offered a chance to change focus and pay heed to Latino voters, a growing population in the state. That would then lead to South Carolina and its large number of black voters.

Along the way, the outreach turned sour. Clinton, trying to make a point about presidential leadership, said it took President Lyndon Johnson to pass civil right legislation envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr. Obama said the remark suggested to some that Clinton was diminishing King’s historic role.

Clinton backer and BET founder Robert Johnson implied that while the Clintons were actively involved in civil rights, Obama was experimenting with drugs and other youthful indiscretions.

During a debate Tuesday in Las Vegas, Clinton and Obama called for a truce on the subject of race.

While that bit of peace held, the campaigns let loose on other fronts.

Late in the week, a federal judge rejected efforts by Clinton backers to halt the use of special precincts to help casino employees caucus along the Las Vegas Strip. Many of the workers are members of the Culinary Workers Union, which backed Obama.

But the judge’s ruling did not come soon enough. The union had already fired back, airing an ad in Spanish that denounced Clinton and said “she does not respect our people.”

Those were tough words in a contest that was supposed to let the Democratic Party embrace Latino voters, not drive a wedge through them.

Obama, urged by Clinton and Edwards to denounce the ad, did not.

Now comes South Carolina, no stranger itself to fight night politics.


Jim Kuhnhenn has been covering politics in Washington for more than 14 years.