The Nevada caucuses are becoming a proxy for the racially tinged fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, with Barack Obama's campaign criticizing Hillary Rodham Clinton's allies for a lawsuit that could prevent some minorities from participating.
On Friday, six Democrats and a teachers union connected to Clinton filed a lawsuit claiming the rules enabling Las Vegas Strip waitresses, dishwashers and bellhops to caucus inside nine resorts violate state law and federal equal protection guarantees. Other caucus-goers lack the same access, the suit argues.
The Clinton campaign has said it's not involved in the lawsuit. The Obama campaign says it may not be a coincidence that Clinton's allies are the plaintiffs.
Obama also suggested the timing was notable, since the suit was filed Friday - two days after he was endorsed by the powerful Culinary Union.
That group's 60,000 members make it the largest union in the state, and nearly 40 percent of its members are Hispanic, its leaders say.
"Obviously the notion that some of the same people who helped to put together the caucus structure are now challenging it in the wake of the Culinary Union endorsement is a little troublesome," Obama told reporters Monday in Reno. "But we're confident that our people are going to show up, and I think we'll do very well."
The Clinton campaign at first distanced itself but then echoed part of the lawsuit argument - a risky strategy in Nevada, where blacks and Hispanics make up nearly a third of the electorate.
The nine special locations inside hotel casinos were meant to make it easier for employees in the state's biggest industry to caucus from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. - but were restricted to workers employed within 2.5 miles of the Strip.
Bill Clinton on Monday defended the suit, saying the caucus rules unfairly favored one group over another.
"I think the rules ought to be the same for everybody," the former president told more than 550 senior students at Green Valley High School near Las Vegas. "I would question why you would ever have a temporary caucus site and say only the people that work there, i.e., the people that we know are going to vote in a certain way or we think they will, (are) able to caucus."
The plaintiffs are the Nevada State Education Association, its president, Lynn Warne, and five others. Debbie Cahill, the deputy executive director of the teachers' union, is a Clinton supporter and a member of the campaign's Nevada Women's Leadership Council.
Two senior partners of the law firm handling the suit, Kummer, Kaempfer, Bonner, Renshaw and Ferrario, have donated to Clinton in the past. Also, Clinton ally and former Rep. Jim Bilbray is an attorney at the firm.
The state Democratic Party unanimously approved the caucus rules last March, and the Democratic National Committee signed on in August. Four of the six plaintiffs are members of the committee that approved the rules.