Las Vegas lit up last night in a way it never has before: with
POLITICS. Seven big-name candidates swooped into town, bringing
with them their traveling road shows -- otherwise known as the
fight for the Democratic Party's nomination for president. On
the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton,
Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Christopher
Dodd and Dennis Kucinich faced off in yet another primary season
debate. But this one was to be different -- because it was the
first to take place in the West.
local activists told me, we'll get them to address "Western"
issues. Issues like scarce water, rapid growth and sustainability,
land use and the storage of nuclear waste.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: "Western"
issues were hardly mentioned. Instead the debate was a continuation
of the scrap at the last debate, in Philadelphia, where Sen. Clinton
was put on the defensive over her position on driver's licenses
for undocumented immigrants and charges she won't give a straight
answer to serious policy questions such as what should be done
to shore up the Social Security system.
Last night, Nevadans sat in the audience at the university's
arena and watched Clinton fight back: She suggested Edwards was
"mudslinging" when he called her positions contradictory
-- and she went hard after Edwards and Obama for criticizing her
when their own issue positions have been unclear or contradictory.
There was one question about the dispute over depositing nuclear
waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain site -- and most of the candidates'
answers were brief. And there was discussion of immigration, including
the driver's license issue, important in this state where immigrants
-- Hispanic, Asian and so many others -- are more assimilated
than the vast majority of the rest of the country. Still, more
time was spent on the "Hillary-Obama-Edwards" competition
and in terms of policy, on Pakistan's current political crisis
than on anything that could be considered uniquely "Western."
The words of long-time Las Vegas public relations executive
Billy Vassiliades come back to me from earlier this week. He said
the candidates can't be expected to get into complicated issues
like mining rights or the fight over water between "upstate"
and southern Nevada, where most of the population lives. "We
look to the candidates for leadership -- not details on these
issues that will mostly be resolved at the state and local level,
Using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste dump IS an example of
a national issue, but many of these other issues do indeed have
principal roots in a mix of city, county and state policies. Still,
if questions of environmental preservation in areas of rapid growth,
for example, don't get aired in forums like the one last night,
where will they be addressed before the election?
The six undecided Nevada voters we watched the debate with Thursday
night didn't say they were disappointed, so perhaps this is a
"national media" driven expectation. Our voters -- three
Democrats, two Republicans and one independent -- were intently
focused on what the candidates did have to say about education,
teacher pay, Pakistan and Iraq -- reminding us that whatever concerns
grow out of where they live, they have much more in common with
the rest of the United States than reporters like me realize.
It's been a fascinating week; and this last lesson is a good
one for me to take back East to Washington, D.C. Unlike so many
other countries, where the population is divided by background
and ethnic origin, and for all our real differences, Americans
have more qualities that unite us than keep us separated.