LAS VEGAS - Hours before a televised debate, presidential hopeful John Edwards said Tuesday he liked his chances in union-strong Nevada, despite a key endorsement for rival Sen. Barack Obama and a lawsuit that could throw a wrench into the tight Jan. 19 caucus race.
Edwards, in his first visit to Nevada since December, shrugged off the endorsement by the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, and his campaign said he had amassed support from national unions that have 28,000 workers here.
"I think union support is relatively evenly divided here in Nevada," Edwards said outside a restaurant where he greeted supporters. "I've got carpenters and steelworkers and transit workers. They'll work hard for me."
The former vice-presidential candidate declined to weigh in on a lawsuit filed by Nevada teachers last week over some special caucus locations on the Las Vegas Strip that were to allow casino industry workers to participate without going far from their workplaces.
The teachers association argued the sites would unfairly favor workers in one industry over others.
Critics have said the timing of the suit, two days after the Culinary endorsed Obama over Edwards and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, showed it was a blatant attempt by Clinton supporters to blunt the union's effectiveness.
"I don't know anything about the nuances of the lawsuit, but my belief is that we ought to do everything in our power to ensure that anyone who wants to caucus and is eligible to caucus gets to caucus," Edwards said. "Ultimately it's for the party to decide."
A recent poll in the Reno Gazette-Journal showed that the race for the Democratic nod was a dead heat in Nevada, with Obama receiving 32 percent support, followed by Clinton with 30 percent and Edwards with 27 percent. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Edwards said he hoped his operational machine of about 75 workers transplanted from Iowa - more than tripling the size of his Nevada staff - would help him gain traction.
His national campaign manager, David Bonier, suggested a good performance in the evening debate could mean the difference.
"We're being outspent here by enormous amounts of money, but according to the polls, we're in a three-way race," Bonier said. "I think the debate tonight will determine who a lot of people are going to vote for."
Bonier also pointed out the caucus was on the Saturday of a holiday weekend during the football playoffs, which is expected to draw thousands of tourists to Las Vegas.
"How many of them (Culinary workers) are actually going to show up given that were talking about the third busiest work day of the year here?" he said. "We'll match our labor support with the others any day."
Earlier Tuesday in a speech to about 300 people at a YMCA in Sparks, ex-President Bill Clinton said he has talked with many of the Culinary Union's rank-and-file who intend to ignore the endorsement and vote for his wife.
"In this case, the establishment organization is with him (Obama) and the insurgents are with her," Clinton said. He then asked for a show of hands from about 50 precinct captains in the audience and challenged them to stand up to the union's leadership.
"They think they're better than you are at identifying and physically getting people to their caucus sites. And I bet they're wrong," he said to cheers.
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Sparks also contributed to this report.