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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren greets supporters at a canvass kickoff event at one of her campaign offices on Feb. 20, 2020, in North Las Vegas, Nevada.David Becker/Getty Images

In the blazing sun of the Las Vegas desert, throngs of white and Latino university students gathered to hear Bernie Sanders offer promises of free college tuition and a higher minimum wage. Metres away in a university lecture hall, Pete Buttigieg was being grilled by an association of black law students over his record on race relations.

Coming off a strong debate performance that brought her a flood of new donations, Elizabeth Warren travelled to the Las Vegas bedroom community of Henderson to reassure suburban moms she would support family leave policies, while Joe Biden met with members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community in a Chinatown strip mall.

Following a bitter debate this week that featured a torrent of personal attacks and record-setting viewership, the Democratic presidential race heads into a new chapter in Nevada this weekend. Saturday’s caucuses offer the first test of how candidates will perform among a diverse and urban electorate whose demographics and most pressing policy issues are far more reflective of the nation than any contest to date.

Mr. Sanders and Mr. Buttigieg have surged in the predominantly white states of New Hampshire and Iowa. But in Nevada, they face a traditionally Republican state shifting Democratic on the strength of growing African-American, Asian and Latino populations.

“That’s what makes us interesting. Whereas in Iowa they’re pandering to farmers with corn subsidies, here the issues are much more salient: immigration, health care,” said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Obviously, when you have a diverse population that is the Democratic space."

In the past, Nevada – an early voting state since 2008 – has offered a preview of how candidates might fare in a general election. With Mr. Sanders opening up a double-digit lead in national polls, Nevada’s caucuses could amount to a coronation ceremony for the 78-year-old Vermont senator and signal the end of Mr. Biden’s candidacy. But if Mr. Sanders disappoints here, as he did in 2016, analysts say it’s likely that Democrats will be headed to a brokered national party convention this summer for the first time in half a century.

Surrounded by smartphone-wielding fans on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas earlier this week, Mr. Sanders outlined how his path to victory runs through the state.

“If there is a large voter turnout here in Nevada I believe we’re going to win the caucus here,” he said. “And if we win the caucus here we’re going to do really well in South Carolina, California and on Super Tuesday. And if we do well on Super Tuesday, we’re going to win the Democratic nomination."

Mr. Sanders’s rising poll numbers in Nevada have appeared to come from voters who previously supported Mr. Biden, but have been unnerved by his weak performance and are looking to the self-described democratic socialist to energize the party base and draw in new voters.

"I thought if anybody could pull in some more independent or Republican votes, it would be Biden,” Katherine Jones, a 19-year-old psychology student, said from the sidelines of Mr. Sanders’s rally. “But he is performing so poorly with the Iowa caucus that as much as I really do like him I’m leaning toward Bernie right now.”

Yet Nevada also presents a new conundrum for Mr. Sanders. Despite running a campaign based on appealing to working-class voters, he has run up against opposition from the state’s powerful labour unions over his plans to abolish private insurance in favour of government-run universal health care.

The Culinary Union, representing more than 60,000 hotel and casino workers, has come out aggressively against Mr. Sanders’s Medicare For All proposal, warning it threatens their hard-won health-care benefits, which are free for members and include comprehensive care in a union-run medical clinic.

Mr. Sanders has promised his health-care proposal would lower costs for union workers. But the dispute risks setting up a repeat of 2016, when Mr. Sanders lost Nevada in part because of union workers who supported Hillary Clinton.

In a state that has some of the highest union membership in the country, fears over universal health care appear to be turning some voters away from Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, who has backed a gradual transition from private insurance to single-payer health care.

“I want everyone to be covered. But if you have a plan that you like I want you to be able to keep it,” said Jonathan Debeb, a 46-year-old commercial pilot whose monthly health care premiums fell from US$2,000 to US$300 when he joined his company’s union. Mr. Debeb had considered supporting Ms. Warren, but cast a ballot in early voting for Mr. Buttigieg because of concerns over Medicare For All. “I agree with it, but not right this minute,” he said. “Maybe in five years, 10 years.”

Worries about government-run health care, along with Nevada’s diverse electorate, may also be the saving grace for Mr. Biden, who is pinning his hopes on Nevada and South Carolina.

“We haven’t heard from 99 per cent of the [Asian-American and Pacific Islanders] community. We haven’t heard from 99.9 per cent of the African-American community. We haven’t heard from 99 per cent of the Hispanic and Latino community,” the former vice-president told a rally at a Chinese seafood restaurant in Las Vegas earlier this week. “The idea that we’re going to decide the nomination before we’ve heard from all of those folks – all of you – is absolutely ridiculous.”

Waiting in line, Linda Gethers hoped Mr. Biden was right. A long-time supporter, the marketing executive at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino had come prepared with a message for Mr. Biden ahead of Saturday’s caucuses. “A lot of people I talk to say it doesn’t look like he really wants it. I think he really wants it, but he’s got to show it,” she said. “When I shake his hand and take my picture, I’m going to say: You’d better start fighting.”