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Nevada's Hispanics could add twist to '08 politics

Story Highlights

• Nevada caucuses between Iowa and New Hampshire on '08 Democratic calendar
• Caucus will be held January 19, 2008
• Latinos, unions highly influential in Nevada Democratic politics
From John King
CNN Washington Bureau
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LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- The road to the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination has a new stop between the Iowa caucuses and the nation's first primary in New Hampshire -- the Nevada caucuses on January 19, 2008.

Like in Iowa and New Hampshire, local Democrats say retail politics will dominate the race in Nevada -- but with a decidedly different look and flavor.

"You have to go to the swap meets and shake people's hands," said state Rep. Ruben Kihuen. "You have to go out to the rodeos and shake people's hands."

Kihuen, a Mexican-born member of the Nevada Legislature, is a young Democrat eager for his state to start a tradition in presidential politics.

To visit Kihuen's district is to see obvious signs of what makes this contest so different from the traditional opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nevada's Hispanic population is nearly 23 percent, compared to 3.5 percent in Iowa and 2 percent in New Hampshire.

So, an early contest in Nevada guarantees greater focus on immigration, urban sprawl, gaming and other issues central to the Las Vegas service economy.

It also guarantees the first opportunity for Latinos, like union member Manny Barajas, to have an early voice in the presidential campaign.

"We are busboys, we are dishwashers, we are waiters, we are cooks," Barajas said, "but you know we impact a lot of the economy of the United States."

Barajas' union, the 60,000-member strong Culinary Workers Union, is already a major player in Nevada politics and now is intensifying its voter registration efforts -- in English and in Spanish -- because of the new presidential calendar.

"It is a big motivation to all our members," Barajas said. "We've got a unique opportunity to make our say."

It's an opportunity that convinced Barajas -- after 35 years in the United States -- to enroll in citizenship classes.

"Everybody asks me: 'Manny, why you being so long to become a citizen?' You know, the thing is that I need to be accounted for. I need to be able to vote," Barajas said. "That was missing for me in all my dreams, my American dreams and my Vegas dream -- me being able to express my opinion legally."

Citizenship classes end in a few months, and Barajas plans to cast his first vote in January -- when the Democratic nominating contest makes its new early stop in the West.


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Democratic state Rep. Ruben Kihuen says retail politics willl be key to winning the Nevada caucuses next year.

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