LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) - Hot on the heels of CNN's presidential Democratic debate at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the candidates made their way to a ballroom at the Paris Hotel on Las Vegas's famed Strip for the Clark County Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson dinner.
Billed by Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley as the "biggest event in Clark County Democratic party history," candidates took to the stage one by one to address an electric crowd of 2,200 Nevada Democrats, including some 80% of Clark County's precinct captains for the January 19 caucus.
As a birthday gift, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson spoke first and used his Western credentials as a way of relating to the Nevadans, the first Western voters of the primary and caucus season. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich chose an issue close to Nevada's heart, touting his record of voting against turning nearby Yucca Mountain into a nuclear waste site.
Few eyebrows were raised when Senator Barack Obama of Illinois went after frontrunner Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. He took several thinly veiled shots at his main rival saying, "Telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of what they need to hear just won't do. Poll testing our position because we're afraid of what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won't do."
Unfazed, Clinton instead attacked Republicans saying the "stakes are higher than they've ever been before." The crowd responded with her emerging slogan "Turn up the heat!" when she asked them what they would do to Republicans on issues like healthcare, education and global warming. The loudest cheers of the evening were reserved for Senator Clinton, likely a reflection of Wednesday's CNN/Opinion Research poll showing that 51% of likely Democratic caucus goers in Nevada would vote for Clinton.
Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards also stayed away from taking jabs at Democratic rivals, setting his sights on the Bush administration and saying that, like in his trial lawyer days, as president he will fight for the disenfranchised against corporate interests.
Predicting that the next president would literally have to go to work on Inauguration Day, Delaware Senator Joe Biden reminded diners of his lengthy foreign policy experience and time in the Senate as arguments that he might not have as much of a learning curve as his opponents. He added that during the ongoing unrest in Pakistan, he talked with President Pervez Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto before they talked to President Bush.
The zinger of the night may have gone to the other veteran senator, Chris Dodd of Connecticut – "I'm a late bloomer in the father business. I have a six year old and a two year old. In fact I'm the only Democratic candidate that gets mail from AARP and diaper services." Dodd invoked family as a top priority everyone shares and one of the main reasons he's running for president.
In contrast to last Saturday's Jefferson Jackson dinner in Iowa, candidates were kept to their allotted time with tactics reminiscent of an awards show – go too long and we will drown you out with music, as former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel found out the hard way.
– CNN Nevada Producer Alexander Marquardt