03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Advantage Hillary, California and Nevada

Hillary Clinton has her mojo back. She's been hitting at the top of her game in the West in California and Nevada, and if the Saturday morning caucuses weren't more Wonderland than Iowa, she might even win the majority of Nevada's Democratic delegates on the strength of her campaigning alone. Will the second New Hampshire comeback for the Clintons be the exception that proves the rule: history never repeats itself? Ever the student, Hillary has learned from her mistakes in the Tall Corn State, to good effect in the Silver Lode.

Here's a small but telling detail in the differences between the Iowa and Nevada HRC campaigns: the staging of the bit players. Iowa Chelsea was the snippy daughter who told a little girl, pencil and pad in hand as a proud reporter for her school newspaper, that she didn't speak to press. This incident, right before the caucuses, was passed around Iowa and probably cost Hillary more than a few delegates. Nevada Chelsea, on the other hand, is best new pal of America Ferrera ("Ugly Betty"), and the two young women have been hanging out in Reno coffee bars eager to chat with one and all, especially if the topic du jour is Yucca Mountain or the FEMA response to the Fernley, Nevada levee break on January 5. A few days before the Iowa caucuses, it was the Clinton team bringing out the superannuated (Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen); now it's the Obama folk shepherding John Kerry along the Strip. Earth to Obama team: Nevadans, who don't just talk change but live it, could care less about Kerry.

More importantly, western Hillary is keeping her voice in her comfort zone, and she sounds the same notes again and again on helping families and children, on housing foreclosures and health care. (If she says "Yucca" one more time, not only will she scream but everyone who follows Nevada will scream with her.) Again, history seems to be favoring her, in the sense that the problems in the economy speak to her strengths. She's driving the message, as other Democrats, including Barack Obama and John Edwards, scramble after her to come up with aid packages of their own. She's able to stay out in front on these issues because she truly has been thinking about them for thirty-five years, or at least since she met Marion Wright Edelman. She doesn't need to tell her domestic policy team to write up a plan. Her dominance here in Nevada is all the more extraordinary because these Democrats--the unions, the lower middle class, the working poor--are John Edwards's people. He is the gifted trial lawyer; but she is upstaging him. And now it's Barack losing his touch, just the way Hillary did in Iowa. Then she rambled on about the Catholic and Protestant women of northern Ireland, and she was oblivious to the reaction in every small Iowa town: northern Ireland? then what's Ireland? Now Obama tells Nevadans that he wouldn't run the country like a CEO or COO would, and the reaction is . . . nonreaction. Nevada Democrats don't really know what he's talking about. Earth to Obama: the managerial class in Nevada are Republicans. The Democrats are folk like your Culinary Workers' Union.

Over the past week, Clinton, Edwards and Obama have been moving back and forth between Nevada and California as if through a swinging door. Pump it up in Nevada (where the race is too close to call), and then race over to California to raise money. Press events in the neighboring states have become mirror images both of each other and of the dual importance of an economic message and the Latino vote. The way Hillary has worked the Hispanic populations of Las Vegas and Reno is obvious and at times mawkish, but it is also masterful. She's canvassed a Hispanic neighborhood of Las Vegas with Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen and a queen's entourage of cameramen in tow. On the way, Kihuen has made sure everyone knows that many of the cooks and dishwashers on the Strip are caucusing for Clinton, despite their union's endorsement of Obama. She's walked a day in a Nevada nurse's shoes with nurse Michelle Estrada. She's sat down with customers at Bertha Miranda's, "one of Reno's most historic Mexican food restaurants." She's received the endorsement of El Mundo , the Southern Nevada Spanish language newspaper. If the Culinary Union and the Nevada SEIU, both of which have come out for Obama, don't hold together, and a number of each membership caucuses for Clinton, then it will be hard for Clinton's opponents to minimize her appeal in Latino communities. If, on the other hand, Barack Obama beats her in the Nevada delegate count, then he will have had some success with Nevada's Hispanic voters, who will in a sense be giving permission for California Hispanics to vote for Obama.

California is why the Nevada caucuses, crazy in and of themselves, are important. And they are crazy. First of all, as the dust-up among Obama and Clinton supporters at Paris Las Vegas shows, Nevadans don't know how to caucus. This is not surprising, since they are new to this particular circus experience. Come Saturday language difficulties undoubtedly will add to the cacaphony. More importantly, the Nevada Democratic Party is math-challenged. On Saturday, the party will hold over 1700 caucuses statewide. Each caucus chooses a set number of delegates determined in advance--no matter how many caucusers, one or a hundred-and-one, show up. Theoretically, one or two people showing up for a rural caucus could choose two, four, eight delegates. On the other hand, the at-large caucus sites, at the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, which the Nevada teachers' union (possibly to help Hillary Clinton) unsuccessfully tried to get a court order to stop, apportion delegates according to the size of the turnout. If 400 culinary workers show up to caucus at the Bellagio, they will choose 80 delegates. Therefore, despite the brilliance of her Nevada campaign, Hillary Clinton could lose to Barack Obama on the Strip, if the Culinary Union holds, and consequently lose big in the state.

In the end, Clinton, Edwards and Obama all three will get chunks of the Nevada delegate count. From the beginning of the count, Clinton will have an advantage, as she does in most states, because she has most of the Superdelegates (the state party officials and elected representatives who have endorsed her). With this advantage or no, win or lose, it's going to be a hard fight, delegate by delegate, state by state, to the nomination. The word inevitable is out-of-fashion for 2008.