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Clinton vs. Sanders in Nevada caucuses: Too close to call

Bernie Sanders closed the gap in the polls in Nevada, as voters turned out Saturday for the Democratic caucuses. 

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    Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, is hugged by a hotel worker at MGM Grand hotel and casino Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Las Vegas.
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Hillary Clinton worked to pull out a victory in Nevada's caucuses on Saturday, seeking to undercut the headway of rival Bernie Sanders and boost her presidential bid as the campaign broadens to primary contests across the country. There were early signs of a tight race.

Though Clinton installed staff on the ground last spring, Sanders' message of combating income inequality appeared to find fertile ground in recent weeks in a state where many voters are still struggling to rebound after years of double-digit unemployment.

Entrance polls of voters found that a third said the economy was their major concern, while a quarter cited income inequality — the centerpiece of the Sanders' campaign.

Underscoring the close race, women, college-educated, nonwhites and those living in union households favored Clinton while Sanders fared best with men, voters under 45 and those less affluent. Whites were split between the two candidates. Sanders did well with self-identified independents and two-thirds of those participating in a caucus for the first time.

The candidates spent their final hours before the caucuses furiously trying to drive up turnout among their supporters. In the first hours of voting, the race appeared close, according to surveys of caucus-goers as they arrived.

Clinton almost crossed paths with Sanders at Harrah's casino Saturday morning less than an hour before the caucuses began. Her goal is to motivate the Las Vegas-area minority voters and union members who could give her the edge over Sanders.

Sanders slipped into an employee cafeteria to shake hands with workers. About 10 minutes later, Clinton came in to do the same.

"I need your help this morning in the showroom," she told workers, who get two hours off work to caucus at sites in the casino. "Spread the word — paid time off!"

Sanders started his caucus day at Las Vegas' MGM Grand casino, shaking hands with culinary workers. He declined to predict victory.

"If there's a large turnout, I think we're going to do just fine,' Sanders told reporters as workers mobbed him. "If it's a low turnout that may be another story."

Significant spending by Sanders on paid media and staff helped his campaign make inroads into the Latino and African-American communities, which make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate in the state.

Capitalizing on a campaign moment, Clinton released a new ad Thursday, targeting immigrants.

The one-minute long ad, titled "Brave," shows a 10-year-old girl telling Clinton that she's afraid of her parents being deported.

"My parents, they have a letter of deportation," she tells Clinton at a campaign event. "I'm scared that they're going to be deported," she says, crying. 

Clinton calls the girl over, wraps her arm around her, and says, "I'm going to do everything I can so you don't have to be scared."

"You don't have to worry about what happens to your mom and dad, or somebody else in your family. Let me do the worrying. I'll do all the worrying, is that a deal? I'll do all the worry. I'll do everything I can to help, OK?"

A Sanders victory in Nevada would undercut one of Clinton's major campaign arguments: that the Vermont senator's insurgent campaign largely appeals to white liberals, a relatively narrow swath of the Democratic Party. Eight years ago, one-third of Democratic caucus-goers in Nevada were minority voters, a percentage that's far more representative of the country as a whole than mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire.

At stake are 23 delegates. In 2008, Clinton won the popular vote in the state, but then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama picked up one more delegate, due to the quirky nature of the caucuses.

Clinton's campaign has tried to lower expectations for her performance in the caucuses, which are notoriously difficult to predict due to the transient nature of the state's population and the fact that voters do not need to be registered as Democrats in advance to participate.

Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, ran her 2008 effort in Nevada. Clinton locked down some of the state's most experienced political hands even before announcing her campaign in April.

In recent months, Sanders has caught up: He's spent slightly more than Clinton on television and radio ads in the state, investing $4 million to her $3.6 million, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media's CMAG, and has more staff on the ground.

After Nevada, the primary moves into South Carolina, which votes Feb. 27, and then into several Southern contests three days later, among other states voting on Super Tuesday.

The polling survey was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research.

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Lerer reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report from Las Vegas.

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