Eight presidential hopefuls field questions at Nevada forum
Democratic presidential candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, right, gestures as he answers a question by George Stephanopoulos, moderator of a candidates forum held by AFSCME in Carson City, Nev., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

CARSON CITY, Nev. -- Eight Democratic hopefuls gathered in Nevada on Wednesday to field questions at a union-sponsored forum 11 months before the first votes are cast for the 2008 presidential nomination.

With Nevada newly poised to play a key role in the party’s political calendar -- its nominating caucuses are scheduled January 19 between perennials Iowa and New Hampshire -- the gathering was the first of many events expected to lure the candidates here in the coming months.

Front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was set to participate in the forum, along with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.

The candidates were scheduled to take the stage separately over two hours to be questioned by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and by representatives of AFSCME, the public employees union sponsoring the event. While the format didn’t allow the hopefuls to engage each other directly, they were expected to pose for a group photo.

Notably absent was Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who irked some activists here by opting to campaign in Iowa instead. Obama headlined a Las Vegas rally over the weekend and was in California Tuesday for a major Hollywood fundraiser.

The Republican National Committee used the forum to try to put its own spin on the candidates, releasing "research documents" containing unflattering critiques of each of the Democrats hours before the event.

In recent years, Democrats have sensed political opportunity in the mountain West, a fast-growing region long dominated by Republicans. Nevada, with its large Hispanic population and influential labor unions, was considered a battleground state in 2004, and President Bush won the state by just 3 percentage points.

Wednesday’s forum -- the first major candidates forum of the election -- was promoted by the state’s senior senator, Majority Leader Harry Reid, to draw attention to the state’s early caucus.

The party’s 2008 nominating convention will be in Denver the capital of a mountain state where Democrats won the governor’s office and picked up a congressional seat in 2006.

By boosting Nevada’s role, Democrats also hoped to add some ethnic diversity to a nominating process that for years has heavily favored Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which are overwhelmingly white.

"We are really excited about Nevada playing such a big part, and it will be great to have all the candidates here," said state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, who narrowly lost her race for governor last year. Titus was hosting several of the candidates Wednesday morning at her office in the state Capitol for meet-and-greet sessions with other legislators.

Reid, who helped push for Nevada’s new prominence in the 2008 calendar, said he hasn’t decided to endorse anyone in a field that features several of his Senate colleagues. But his son, former state Democratic Chairman Rory Reid, has signed on as Clinton’s Nevada chairman.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Sen. Reid acknowledged that his son’s role is "not the easiest thing to say" to the other candidates.

"I can’t put numbers on who’s No. 1, No. 2, who’s going to win. I’m going to stay neutral on this," Reid said.

Associated Press Writer Brendan Riley in Carson City, Nev., contributed to this story.