Key Nevada union backs Obama in blow to Clinton

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Barack Obama rebounded from a close loss to Hillary Clinton and won the support of the heavily Hispanic union representing Las Vegas casino workers on Wednesday ahead of the next Democratic presidential contest.

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The Obama endorsement by the Culinary Workers Union, whose 60,000 members service the famed hotels and casinos on the Las Vegas strip and is a major political force in Nevada, was a blow to Clinton, who had campaigned for its backing in the state’s January 19 contest.

“We had a wonderful dilemma,” D. Taylor, the union’s secretary treasurer, told a noisy news conference. “It’s been a very difficult decision.”

“We understand we are going against the Democratic power establishment ... we are used to being underdogs,” he added.

Clinton, the New York senator aiming to become the first woman president in the November election, had led in polls in Nevada and courted the union and Hispanics, which make up 45 percent of the union’s membership.

The group’s parent organization, UNITE HERE, with 460,000 food service, gaming and other workers nationwide, also expressed support for Obama, the Illinois senator who is hoping to become America’s first black president.

“It’s a little bit of a surprise,” said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “A lot of people expected, especially after Clinton’s turnaround in New Hampshire yesterday, that they would go for the establishment candidate.”

Clinton, the former first lady, narrowly beat Obama in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary after trailing by double digits in public opinion polls leading up to the voting.

Democrats moved up the Nevada contest to third for 2008 because the Western state with its large Hispanic population and diverse mix of people was seen as more representative of the rest of the United States than Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Culinary Union endorsement is also a setback to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who worked hard to build labor support in the key primary states and finished third in New Hampshire, well behind Clinton and Obama.

Nevada is considered a political swing state that could go either Republican or Democrat in the general election in November, and it has backed the winner every year since President Richard Nixon in 1972.

“A union endorsement is important,” Ken Fernandez, an assistant professor and expert on unions at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Obama in a statement stressed his long time support for unions and plans to address the group on his trip to Las Vegas on Friday.

Editing by David Wiessler