My Week: Toby Harnden

It’s Monday, so it must be Vegas. After trudging through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire covering the most fascinating and unpredictable US presidential race in modern history, I’m heading to Sin City for the Nevada caucuses.

Being married and with a daughter of seven months, the constant travelling on the campaign trail is a different experience than during my single days. But I still get a huge buzz from being on the road. Last month, I filed a story from Utah – the last of all 50 US states I’d reported from.

I love the razzmatazz and hardball of American presidential contests. I covered the 2000 race – pregnant chads and all – but missed 2004 because I was in Iraq. I’d vowed to return for 2008 and circumstances – marriage to an American, a revolution at the Telegraph – happily combined to make it happen.

There’s no way to cover this story properly without clocking up the miles. There can be a temptation to linger in Washington DC, but seeing the candidates up close (and occasionally even speaking to them) adds something significant to what you write and learn. Not to mention the voters.

Sometimes, however, what you see and hear can deceive you. In New Hampshire, every possible indicator – polls, crowds, enthusiasm levels – suggested that Hillary Clinton was going to lose big. A sobering lesson for us all.

Iowa and New Hampshire are traditional first-voting states, Nevada is different. It’s been added to the calendar by the Democratic party to give ethnic diversity to the early contests. Hispanics form an important voting bloc.

Last time I was in Vegas, I stayed at the Paris casino and had to walk through a fug of cigarette smoke, past hundreds of slot machines and getting lost every time I wanted to go outside. Like the Hotel California, casinos are designed so you can check out any time but you can never leave. This time, I plumped for a Marriott – no surprises.

Tuesday is a televised debate. The main value of being actually there is that you get to talk to the campaign strategists afterwards. At any other time, they are elusive creatures but tonight I can chat to Obama’s top adviser David Axelrod and Mark Penn, Clinton’s go-to guy.

The two sum up the difference between the two candidates – Axelrod is relaxed, genial and big-picture. He suggests that I am being too cynical when I ask if Obama called a halt to the weekend row over race because it was damaging him. Penn is a master of polling detail and relentlessly on message. It was a good night for Clinton so he’s not sweating as profusely as usual.

American news outlets tread warily on the subject of race. An advantage of being a Brit is that we can be more direct and tackle an important issue that is sometimes buried under a mound of PC-ness.

So Wednesday is spent delving into the question which I judge will answer whether Obama can win here – will Hispanics vote for a black candidate? I catch an Obama event. The racial divide is stark – many blacks but few Hispanics. There are also some empty seats – a rare sight at an Obama event. I take a digital snap and file a blog while I’m waiting for the candidate using a wireless ‘air card”. These days, the newspaper is but one outlet. In New Hampshire, I did video, audio and blogged, sometimes several times a day. It’s exhilarating but exhausting.

Inside the Caesars Palace and Belaggio casinos, I’m told I can’t talk to employees without the OK from PR people. There’s no time to get this and anything pre-arranged is unlikely to yield honest answers. So I slink around chatting to croupiers and waitresses. Many of the Hispanics say they will vote for Clinton even though their union is backing Obama.

On Thursday I’m at a small meeting with Obama’s wife Michelle and a big rally with Bill Clinton. In New Hampshire, I got to speak to Bill for a couple of minutes. No luck this time – his handlers keep me away. I witness Chelsea answer a question though, a campaign first and another blog.

Gut feelings can be wrong but I have a hunch Obama’s going to lose. Sure enough, I’m at the Caesars Palace caucus on Saturday and there’s a surge in Clinton support as the Hispanic casino workers reject their union’s advice.

Crammed into Planet Hollywood, where the poker and blackjack is going on downstairs, I listen to Clinton declare that this was ‘how the West was won”. I relay the quotes to The Sunday Telegraph, on their final deadline, via my BlackBerry. Then I’m out on a red-eye. I lose $10 on a slot machine at the airport. Next stop South Carolina.

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