Court allows casino vote that may boost Obama

LAS VEGAS Thu Jan 17, 2008 5:15pm EST

A view of the marquee sign in front of the Harrah's Las Vegas casino on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, December 12, 2007. A federal judge on Thursday allowed Nevada's Democratic Party to conduct voting to choose a presidential nominee in casino hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, a decision likely to boost Sen. Barack Obama. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus/Files

A view of the marquee sign in front of the Harrah's Las Vegas casino on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, December 12, 2007. A federal judge on Thursday allowed Nevada's Democratic Party to conduct voting to choose a presidential nominee in casino hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, a decision likely to boost Sen. Barack Obama.

Credit: Reuters/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus/Files

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LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday allowed Nevada Democrats to hold presidential voting in casino hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, potentially helping Sen. Barack Obama in the next round of the campaign on Saturday.

For the first time, Nevada Democrats planned to set up nine locations for Saturday's vote so casino shift workers, who are largely represented by a union that endorsed Obama, could attend caucuses and vote for a presidential candidate.

A teachers' group filed a lawsuit saying the fact that only workers around the casinos could vote at their workplaces was unfair, but Judge James Mahan of the U.S. District Court for Nevada rejected their request for an injunction.

"The Democrats can set up their own rules just as the Republicans can," the judge said. "It is not up to some federal judge to come along and say, I don't like that."

As to any confusion in the rules, Mahan quoted U.S. humorist Will Rogers: "I'm not a member of any organized group. I'm a Democrat."

A large turnout of casino workers could boost Obama, of Illinois, in his tight race against New York Sen. Hillary Clinton because he is backed by the Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 hotel service workers.

"I think the judge was clear that you can't change the rules six days before the caucus, and any alterations would have disenfranchised the maids, dishwashers, bellhops who work on the Strip," Obama said in San Francisco.

Other Nevadans will meet in locations near their homes to vote in the next in a series of state-by-state contests to choose Democratic and Republican nominees.

Similar to Iowa, the voting in Nevada is done in caucuses, or gatherings, rather than by individual polling.

"The Obama campaign got the endorsement of the Culinary Union so I think that will help them at the at-large (casino) precincts," said Jill Derby, chair of the Nevada State Democratic Party.

UNION MUSCLE

Obama, who like Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards has actively campaigned across Nevada in recent days, may need the boost. According to a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll to be released later on Thursday, Clinton leads Obama by nine points in a new survey. They did not release the margin of error.

Yet the Culinary Union is the state's most influential labor group and its activists are talking to members in workers' cafeterias in the famed Strip hotels and knocking on doors urging its members to turn out for Obama.

On Wednesday, the Review-Journal gave a tepid endorsement to Obama, noting that although Clinton frequently cites her experience for the job "in fact she's a one-term-plus-a-year senator ... Obama is, at least, likable."

Unlike presidential primary elections in most U.S. states, the Nevada Democratic caucus requires participants to stand in the open in groups to support the candidates.

Any member not backing the union choice would be visible, especially those voting together with co-workers on the Strip instead of locations near homes.

Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have in recent days voiced concern about the fairness of the Strip caucuses, while Obama was displeased by the lawsuit that came almost immediately after he won the Culinary Union endorsement last week.

Republicans are also holding caucuses in Nevada on Saturday but will not have any sites at the casino hotels.

Some members of the culinary union suspected the case was motivated by Clinton supporters after the Obama endorsement, but Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, denied that and said she only learned of the details of the casino voting plan last week.

(Additional reporting by Amanda Beck in San Francisco; Editing by Alan Elsner)

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