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Democratic hopefuls for '08 head west for early test

Story Highlights

• Eight Democratic presidential contenders to field questions at union event
• Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to be absent due to a commitment in Iowa
• Event gives the Democrats a chance to sharpen their positions on Iraq
• Forum proves the impact of moving Nevada's caucuses up in the calendar
By Dana Bash
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CARSON CITY, Nevada (CNN) -- Nevada is about to get its first true taste of what it's like to be an early presidential testing ground, as Democratic hopefuls descend on the state capital for the kickoff candidate forum of the 2008 campaign.

Eight Democratic presidential contenders -- all except Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who had a previous commitment in Iowa -- are coming to the western cattle call hosted Wednesday by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- or AFSCME.

But don't expect the candidates to be mixing it up with one another. They won't be sharing the stage.

Instead, candidates will appear one after the other, each taking three questions from the audience in a union-filled auditorium, read by moderator George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

The event gives the Democrats an opportunity to sharpen their positions on Iraq, shaping up as the dominant issue for 2008. That includes a chance to see how the pressure from the party's anti-war base is influenced by Britain's reported decision to start bringing some troops home. (Full story)

If nothing else, the forum will prove the impact of the Democrats' new nominating calendar.

The Democratic National Committee last year made the controversial decision to wedge Nevada's caucuses between Iowa and New Hampshire, in hopes of forcing presidential candidates to spend time in a region where Democrats have been making inroads. (Full story)

"If the candidates running for president can come to Nevada and learn about Nevada, they will know the issues of eight or nine of the western states," said Nevada Democratic Party Chairman Tom Collins.

Nevada party officials predict candidates will be peppered with questions they won't get in the Northeast or the Midwest -- issues like water and public land use. That could give a leg up to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only westerner in the race, and whose home-state issues mirror those of Nevada's.

AFSCME officials say they expect their members to be focused on what they call "working family" issues.

While union membership is waning back East, organized labor still thrives in Nevada and is expected to play a pivotal role in determining the winner of the state's caucuses.

In 2006, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards made early inroads with unions by supporting a ballot measure to raise Nevada's minimum wage. The measure passed in November with 69 percent of the vote.

But union officials insist their members are eager to get to know all candidates.

Obama is skipping the candidate forum, but he did make an appearance in Las Vegas last weekend. He is hiring staff in the state and promises to be back.

This will be New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's first trip to the Silver State. In a sign she's taking the Nevada caucuses seriously, she recently named Rory Reid, a county commissioner and son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to head her campaign in the state.

In New Hampshire and in Iowa, Clinton has been getting pummeled at campaign events by Democratic voters demanding to know why she will not say she regrets her 2002 vote giving President Bush the authority to wage war in Iraq.

"The most important thing now is trying to end this war," she said last weekend in New Hampshire. (Watch Clinton standing her ground Video)

The pressure on Clinton could be even greater as she appears at the same event as two candidates who have said they regret voting to authorize war -- Edwards and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden.

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The Iraq war is shaping up as the No. 1 issue for Democrats trying to earn four years in the White House.



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