Democrats exploring a new route

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic presidential campaign heads West Wednesday, blazing a new trail to the White House.

Nevada will get its first close-up look at the Democratic field on Wednesday as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees hosts the first candidate forum of the campaign -- drawing all the candidates except Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who begged off.

Candidates traditionally have gone through the same two states first -- Iowa and New Hampshire -- en route to the nomination. This time Democrats have juggled their nominating calendar to give Nevada and South Carolina a share of the early action. As of now, nomination voting will begin in Iowa on Jan. 14, then Nevada, then New Hampshire, then South Carolina, then everywhere else.

That lineup may change. New Hampshire may move its date forward to make sure it doesnít slip behind Nevada. But for now, the national party and campaigns are acting like Nevadaís in the early mix.

Party leaders hope the candidates will do more than court the bosses of big labor at Wednesdayís event. By making Nevada an early prize, the Democratic National Committee hopes that the candidates will find a message and voice that helps one of them win the state in the fall of 2008.

If a candidate finds a way to win the nationís fastest-growing state, the DNC hopes he or she will find the path to win the West. That would allow a Democrat to win the Electoral College and the presidency without having to break the Republicansí grip on the South.

Thereís some reason for the DNCís optimism.

Democrats made inroads in the Mountain West in the last several elections, winning Senate seats and governorsí offices from Montana to Arizona.

One big help: dropping all talk about gun control, which had hurt the party among gun owners in the 1990s.

Another: the Republican focus on such issues as abortion and gay marriage, which endears the party to the evangelical Christians of the Deep South, but is more off-putting to libertarians of the West.

Also, some Republicansí push to expel illegal immigrants isnít widely popular in the heavily Hispanic region.

Nevada has the highest percentage of Hispanics -- 19.7 percent of its population -- of any of the first four nomination states. Iowa has 2.8 percent, New Hampshire 1.7 percent, and South Carolina 2.4 percent.

Nevada also is more unionized than the rest. Union members make up 13.8 percent of the workforce there, 11.5 percent in Iowa, 10.4 percent in New Hampshire and 2.3 percent in South Carolina.