They came in maid's uniforms, in cocktail waitress miniskirts, in bellhop suits and in chef's toques. And in the end, many of them - particularly the Latino members of the powerful Culinary Workers Union - were at the center of a crucial win for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday in the Nevada Democratic caucuses.Clinton's 51-45 percent victory over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was her second significant win - along with the New Hampshire primary - and was credited to support from the largely Latino culinary workers who bucked their powerful 60,000-member union's endorsement of Obama.
Conventional wisdom suggested Obama would win the at-large caucuses held on the Las Vegas strip. He had the union endorsement, and the caucus locations made voting easy for the scores of unionized casino workers. But Clinton took seven of the nine at-large events, results showed.
If the Nevada contests were a disappointment to Obama, they were a heavy blow to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. He had worked hard for union support in Las Vegas but came away with just 4 percent of the vote.
"I guess this is how the West was won," yelled Clinton, her voice straining, as she addressed crowds of ecstatic volunteers at a post-caucus victory party inside Planet Hollywood. Noting that a record 115,000 Nevadans weighed in at the caucuses, the New York senator said, "I'm particularly grateful to all of the members of the Culinary Union," adding, "We will all be united in November."
The support of the tens of thousands who are the backbone of the Nevada hospitality industry was the focus of furious - and decidedly unusual - last-minute campaigning by both candidates and their surrogates.
Clinton, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and daughter Chelsea worked casinos like Planet Hollywood, Mandalay Bay and the Rio on Saturday morning, going straight to staff dining areas, greeting workers and shaking hands before the workers went to caucus. At the MGM Grand, the former president was swarmed by mostly Latino workers on the housekeeping staff of the hotel, which has 5,000 rooms and 9,600 employees.
Obama visited the kitchen workers at the Mirage and the Bellagio to ask for their support in the hours before the at-large caucuses, which were among 1,764 such gatherings, Republican and Democratic, that took place across the state.
The turnout at some caucuses was so heavy, officials reported, that lines snaked out the door. At the caucus held in the Wynn Hotel and Casino, so many lined up to participate that voting didn't begin until nearly 12:30 p.m., a half hour after the gatherings were officially to start.
The victory in Nevada, the first Western state to weigh in on the 2008 Democratic presidential race, could be a help for Clinton in California, where her significant lead among Latino and women voters has given her a double-digit advantage over Obama.
Clinton's win showed her strength among two significant voter groups that will shape the Feb. 5 California primary. She carried a 3-1 margin with Latinos across Nevada, and did nearly as well among women and white voters, entrance polls showed. Obama carried African American voters by a 5-1 margin, and also appealed to younger voters, the polls showed.
Inside the caucus at the Wynn, such divisions were readily apparent among the 397 workers who turned out in the casino ballroom to make their preferences known.
Many of them, still dressed in uniforms and on their breaks, provided one of the most unusual pictures of democracy in action in recent history. Showing up in their frilly maids' dresses, their short black cocktail waitress minis and fishnets, and their white chefs' uniforms, they waved signs and chanted for their candidates before the caucus started.
Underscoring the high stakes, the crowd engaged in raucous pre-vote demonstrations for half an hour - gathering in opposing groups and good-naturedly confronting each other, chanting "Obama!" and "Hillary!"
The Wynn caucus' astonishing array of workers - kitchen line cooks, casino workers, security guards, dancers and bouncers - seemed nearly split along racial lines. Most of the African American workers appeared to side with the group wearing red Obama shirts and waving his campaign signs, while the lion's share of the Latino workers, particularly the women, were open in their alignment with Clinton. Their vote gave the win to Clinton at that caucus by a hair: 189-187.
Voters like Thelma Estrada, a Mexican-born maid at the Wynn, were among the hordes of workers who came out to express their preferences. Dressed in her crisp maid's uniform, she happily held aloft her "Hillary" sign before the caucus started and lustily cheered for her candidate, saying that she paid no attention to her union's endorsement of Obama.
"I think it's time for a woman," she said, as her co-worker Aracely Bustamante, a casino worker, nodded in agreement.
But Germary Jestary, an Ethiopian native and a Wynn kitchen worker, said the choice should not have been about race. "What we need is the right person for the future," he said, holding his Obama sign.
In what could also be a telling sign for Clinton's prospects in California, where Bill Clinton remains exceedingly popular, many of the Wynn workers - particularly Latinos - cited their loyalty to the former president as a reason to vote for the New York senator.
"I liked Bill Clinton," said Kristine Stokes, 28, a waitress at the Wynn's hip Tryst Nightclub, who showed up at the caucuses with her co-workers, many of whom said they had worked most of the night.
And others said that no matter who their union had endorsed, they wanted to weigh in on their own regarding such an important decision as the next president.
"I felt a little pressured, because they were pushing. But it's my election," said Rodrigo Garcia Roja, a Cuban-born kitchen worker at the Hilton Hotel.
Supporters at Clinton's victory party, many from California, said the outcome in Nevada was a good sign for the next big contests, especially the Feb. 5 primary in the nation's most populous state.
"She's definitely going to go on and take California. She really went out and got the Hispanic vote, and that's the lead-in for California," said Karen Messier of San Francisco, a volunteer with the Clinton campaign who was in Las Vegas to savor the victory.
She was surrounded by volunteers who hugged, kissed and high-fived each other at Planet Hollywood as they waited for Clinton to deliver her victory speech. "She really cares about the workers, and they came out for her," she said.
But Clinton's victory came after a Silver State campaign marred by charges of dirty campaigning and bitter Democratic division over the Culinary Workers Union's endorsement of Obama. It kicked off legal battles between Obama and Clinton camps over the establishment of the nine at-large caucus meetings - a battle won by the union when courts upheld the caucus locations.
The Clinton victory was especially disappointing for Obama, however, because his organizers had aggressively worked the grass roots in Las Vegas.
Obama national field director Temu Figueroa said before the caucus at the Wynn that the Illinois senator's team had been reaching out to culinary and hospitality workers in the Las Vegas area for 10 months with a Spanish-speaking team doing groundwork at each major at-large caucus location.
"We had 10 organizers working the Strip and developing and cultivating the relationships" with the workers, he said. "They know their kids' names, their dogs' names."
But when it was over, Figueroa said only that perhaps the endorsement of the Culinary Workers Union came too late to have maximum power for Obama - and that in the final analysis, the Clinton team "did a great job of organizing."
Figueroa said he now has his eyes on California.
"It's on to the next battle," he said.
In Nevada, Barack Obama won 13 delegates and Hillary Rodham Clinton won 12 because of the proportional manner in which Nevada awards delegates.
Overall, Clinton leads the race for delegates with 236, including separately chosen party and elected officials known as superdelegates. She is followed by Obama with 136 and former Sen. John Edwards with 50.
A total of 2,025 delegates are needed to secure the Democratic nomination.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.