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In Vegas area, Bernie Sanders woos Latinos with mariachis and immigrant heritage

In Vegas area, Bernie Sanders woos Latinos with mariachis and immigrant heritage
Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his wife, Dr. Jane Sanders, takes his Democratic presidential campaign to a rally  in North Las Vegas, Nev. (John Locher / Associated Press)

Bernie Sanders took his Democratic presidential campaign to the racially diverse outskirts of Las Vegas on Sunday, telling a large crowd gathered at a soccer stadium about the struggles of his immigrant father and pledging to dismantle what he termed "the excessively wasteful $18-million deportation regime."

In a speech that appeared tailored to Latino residents on the city's northeast side, Sanders vowed to stop large-scale deportations and close privately owned immigrant detention centers. He was introduced by two young Latino activists — one of whom told the story of her father's deportation — as well as a 10-piece mariachi band.

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On Monday, Sanders will speak at a national gathering of immigration activists.

Sanders' explicit appeals to Nevada's growing Latino electorate are not accidental.

The senator from Vermont would need to capture large numbers of Latino and African American votes to best Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton in Nevada's Feb. 20 caucus.

But he faces major hurdles.

The Sanders campaign, which prides itself on its small donations, opened its first field office in Nevada just last month. The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, has been on the ground here since April, with 22 paid staff members who have been door-knocking and phone-banking daily.

"It's going to be hard for him to win, given that he's setting up his campaign infrastructure this late in the game," said Andres Ramirez, a Las Vegas political consultant who specializes in Latino outreach. "It's going to be hard to overcome the traction she's already got."

In a setback for the Sanders campaign, his recently appointed Nevada state director unexpectedly stepped down Sunday. Michael Briggs, the campaign's communications director, said state director Jim Farrell was leaving the top position because of a "family issue" and is being replaced by Joan Kato, another high campaign official in Nevada.

That behind-the-scenes shake-up wasn't apparent at Sunday night's rally, where an enthusiastic crowd braved temperatures in the low 50s to hear Sanders speak about campaign finance reform and income inequality.

They cheered loudly when he touted his campaign mantra about ending "the greed of the billionaire class." They booed loudly when he talked about super PACs, climate change and wealthy Republican donors Charles and David Koch.

Sanders acknowledged his campaign's challenges, telling the crowd that people might ask why they were at a rally "with some guy nobody's heard of." But Sanders said the campaign's large number of donations from individuals is proof that it has legitimacy and staying power.

The crowd was predominantly white, although it included some Latinos. The Sanders campaign recently started airing a Spanish-language radio ad, and in recent days volunteers promoted the rally in Latino neighborhoods.

One attendee, Corey Ayala, said he was there because his 17-year-old son urged him to come. Ayala, a Democrat who voted for President Obama, said he has fond memories of Clinton's husband's presidency but is not yet committed to voting for her in the caucus. He knew little about Sanders, but "I want to know all my options."

Renaldo Elliott, 31, an African American who was holding a Sanders sign, said he was troubled that the crowd wasn't more diverse. Polls show Sanders has low name recognition in the Latino and African American communities, which could be a problem for him in Nevada and other  racially diverse early primary states, such as South Carolina.

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Elliott, who said he was supporting Sanders because of his pledges of prison reform, marijuana legalization and a higher minimum wage, said he doesn't know why Sanders' message hasn't resonated more with minorities, especially African Americans.

"For some reason, he hasn't found a way to connect," Elliott said.

"I'm here," he said, looking around at the crowd. "But I don't see a lot of me here."

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