LAS VEGAS &

The voter-registration office here in Clark County says it received 4,025 new-voter registrations last week and 2,240 the week before that. In a presidential race where new voters are trending toward Barack Obama, and in a state where Saturday's Democratic caucus may attract no more than 50,000 people, those new voters could tip the balance.




Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton have worked Nevada hard. The state's elected Democratic leadership and Hispanic leaders have lined up behind her, and a last-minute federal-court challenge to the caucus rules could undercut a big Obama advantage. But what could decide the winner here is whether Nevada voters can figure out what a caucus is and then decide to attend.




"We're not familiar with the process," says Dan Hart, a Democratic lobbyist who isn't aligned with any candidate. Nevada voters have two weeks to cast their ballots in a general election and can vote in shopping malls, among other places. But a caucus, Hart says, is "the other end of the spectrum."




When Nevada's Democrats caucused four years ago and just 9,000 voters showed up at 17 caucus sites around the state to endorse John Kerry, the nomination was already sewn up.




For this year, under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid &

of Nevada &

the party made the state one of four early-decision contests. Republicans piggy-backed the date and called their own caucuses.




In an affront that Nevadans still complain about, New Hampshire leapfrogged Nevada to vote second and steal the nation's attention. In a further affront, the Republican candidates have largely ignored the state, conceding it and its substantial Mormon population to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.




But Obama's first-place finish in Iowa and Clinton's in New Hampshire have added some sizzle to the Democratic race. The winner here would receive a helpful bump heading into the South Carolina Democratic primary on Jan. 26. More importantly perhaps, the race is focusing the Democrats on the nation's huge and growing Hispanic vote, which could hold the key to the party's electoral success for years to come.




Clinton was long expected to win the Nevada caucuses. An increased appeal to women, including a women's rally that was to follow last night's Democratic debate, could still put her over the top.




The New York senator held showy hearings on the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump near Las Vegas last year. President Clinton carried the state twice, and Dina Titus, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, says even family history favors Clinton. "Bill's mother liked to gamble here," she says.