Donald Trump threw punches at Republican rivals Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush in a Las Vegas rally, while former President Bill Clinton, speaking nearby, slammed Republicans for preying on middle-class voters’ fears, as the leading presidential campaigns descended on Nevada a month before it becomes the first Western state to cast votes in this year’s races.
Held at opposite ends of the famed Las Vegas Strip, the dueling rallies highlighted the importance of Nevada in both the Republican and Democratic nominating cycles, even as most of the political class remains fixated on Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus Feb. 1 and the New Hampshire primary eight days later.
For Clinton, the third state on the primary calendar could offer a way to reverse the early success of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whom recent polls show leading in the first two contests. For Trump, who now boasts leads in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the fourth state in the Republican primary could offer compelling evidence of an establishment rout.
A confident Trump delivered his free-form stump speech about nine miles from his gold-hued Trump Hotel Las Vegas. Speaking to a boisterous crowd of about 2,000 at the South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa, Trump questioned whether Hillary Clinton would even survive the Democratic primary. The billionaire developer and reality-TV star said weak leadership in Washington has left the U.S. vulnerable both economically and militarily. He criticized the Democratic front-runner as "boring, very boring" and said she would roll back gun rights.
"I’m not so sure she gets to the starting gate, to be honest," Trump said of Clinton. "She has a lot of problems."
But Trump spent more time attacking Republican rivals Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush. He said Cruz is too "strident" to negotiate on behalf of the U.S., and repeated criticisms of Bush as a lackluster campaigner.
Hours later, speaking to a crowd about half as large in the gymnasium at Advanced Technologies Academy, a Las Vegas technical school, a composed Clinton, without naming Trump, said Republicans are scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims for the country’s troubles, and made the case for his wife’s "inclusive" economic and social policies. On the subject of health care, he argued that Sanders backs a risky re-evaluation of President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
"We need inclusive social policies," Bill Clinton said, "and to get there, we need inclusive politics."
Without naming a specific GOP candidate, Clinton said Republicans have preyed on anger, fear and anxiety of working-class voters rather than offering solutions to problems like the declining life expectancy of lower-income white males.
"They made it pretty clear that they don’t want you to nominate Hillary," Bill Clinton said. "They have one strategy only: to demonize people. They will say anything."
Indeed, earlier in the evening, Trump touched on the now familiar themes of his nativist campaign: making Mexico pay for a wall along the border with the U.S., renegotiating trade agreements with China and other countries, strengthening the military, and getting rid of Obamacare and Common Core educational standards. The 45-minute speech was interrupted by one heckler, whom Trump promptly ordered removed from the crowd.
Trump’s anti-establishment message could resonate in Nevada, a state with a tradition of rugged individualism, said Rob Haw, 58, an aviation consultant who attended the Trump rally.
"He is starting to moderate his tone a little bit, which he needs to do to draw in more moderate people," Haw said in an interview. "This is becoming a movement that is sweeping the nation."
Nevada, with its six electoral votes, has backed the winning candidate in each presidential race since 1980, when it had only three.