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Democrats vie for Nevada's Latino vote

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  • NEW: Democrats can take caucuses to casinos, judge rules
  • In Nevada, Latinos 20 percent of population; 12 percent of eligible voters
  • Culinary Workers Union has backed Sen. Barack Obama
  • Education, economy, immigration important issues in Hispanic community
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(CNN) -- The first state in which the Latino vote will have an impact holds its caucuses Saturday, but Nevada's Hispanic community has yet to rally behind any particular candidate.

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Sen. Barack Obama talks with people on the east side of Los Angeles, California, where many Latinos live.

Hispanics represent the nation's fastest-growing minority, and almost 60 percent identify themselves as Democrats. In Nevada, Latinos make up about 20 percent of the population.

Hispanics make up 12 percent of Nevada's eligible voters, compared with 9 percent of eligible voters nationally. Democrats moved Nevada's primary up, in part, to showcase the Hispanic vote, and all the major Democratic candidates are vying to capture it.

"If you have to win this state, and if this is the state the Democratic Party set up as the example of the influence of Hispanic voters in the party, you have to be able to show you can win Hispanic support," said Adam Segal of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Capturing the Hispanic vote in Nevada could provide an important edge going into the races in California, New York and New Jersey, battleground states where the Hispanic vote could be decisive.

The concerns on the minds of Nevada's Hispanic voters are the same issues that the rest of the nation faces, said Luis Valera, with the Latin Chamber of Commerce of Las Vegas. Video Watch what's on the minds of Nevada's Hispanic voters »

"Those folks are worried about their jobs. They're worried about the economy. They're worried about the health of the tourism industry. They're worried about making sure that their kids get a good education," he said.

Where Hispanics might differ, however, is on the issue of immigration, Valera said.

"The Hispanic community is going to be a little more sensitive to the immigration issue, more so than other communities," he said.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois received a big boost from the state's Latino population when the culinary workers endorsed him. Most of the union's members are Hispanic and will be encouraged to support him Saturday.

Besides kitchen workers, the 60,000-strong Culinary Workers Union represents people working in Las Vegas and Reno-area casinos; serving cocktails; and in housekeeping, according to the union Web site.

But that endorsement might mean more to union leaders than union members. Some say they weren't consulted about the endorsement, according to radio host Miguel Barrientos, a supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"And seven out of 10, that's what they say: They never asked me -- I don't know why they chose Obama!" said Eddie Escobedo, publisher of El Mundo, a Hispanic paper in Nevada.

Clinton, who got an endorsement from labor activist Richard Chavez, brother of legendary union organizer Cesar Chavez, has been encouraging members to vote their conscience.

The more than 200,000 people who work on the Vegas Strip could also play a deciding role in Saturday's caucuses. Many of them are members of the union that backed Obama.

Saturdays are the busiest days for the workers -- so Democrats planned to bring the caucuses to the casinos for them.

The plan was up in the air when the Nevada Teachers Union challenged the casino precincts in a lawsuit, saying the nine at-large caucuses would be unfair to workers elsewhere, who wouldn't get the same treatment. Video Watch how the caucuses spurred a lawsuit »

A federal judge ruled Thursday, however, that the Democratic Party can go ahead with the plan.

The Democratic race in Nevada appears tight, with the two front-runners in a statistical tie.

According to an American Research Group poll conducted January 9 through Monday, Clinton is leading Obama 35 percent to 32 percent among likely Democratic caucus-goers.

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Former Sen. John Edwards has the support of 25 percent. The survey's margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The GOP also is holding caucuses Saturday in Nevada, but most Republican candidates will be focusing their attention that day on the South Carolina primary. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Chris Lawrence, Candy Crowley, Ted Rowland, John Roberts and Jessica Yellin contributed to this report.

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