Reporter's Notebook: Ongoing Live Reporting from Vegas Debate

Here's my live reporter's notebook from the UNLV's Cox Center in Las Vegas, site of tonight's Democratic Presidential Debate. I will be updating it right up the through to the debate which begins at 5 p.m. local time. (Also, see the pieces I've filed from here over the past 24 hours on what to look for in the debate, the scramble for Nevada's crucial labor endorsement, and Hillary Clinton's surge in gambling industry support).

My live notebook:

7:00 p.m. Here's my report from the debate itself. In a Democratic free-for-all, Hillary Clinton launches a counter-offensive,

4:55 p.m. The debate starts in five minutes and I plan to follow it closely. I'll be taking notes so I can try to write something reasonably intelligent afterward. See you soon after the debate ends.

4:00 p.m.
"Eleven days is a lifetime in politics. Anyone could recover or fail in that amount of time," says Nevada Democratic caucus director Jean Hesssburg. Earlier this afternoon she had briefed the assembled media here on the importance of the scheduled January 19 vote. Now she's hashing it out with me one on one as we wait for tonight's debate to start.

I ask her how she thinks Nevada would make any difference if, say, Hillary Clinton runs the table by sweeping Iowa and New Hampshire in the two weeks previous to the Nevada vote. "It's not about who wins in Iowa, but about who comes in second," she says. "Nevada would be their chance to recover and come back. We'd be decisive."

Okay, I say. But it has been sort of disappointing to see how relatively few visits the major candidates have made here compared to their virtual residence in Iowa. "I'm not sure that candidate visits, per se, are the measure," Hessburg answers. "Now, of course, if I had my druthers, they would have been here everyday. But it's more about what's going to happen than what has happened so far. The bottom line is that for candidates who come in second, third, fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire this state will be crucial. No one will have the luxury to skip Nevada. Not with South Carolina a week after us, and the big Super Tuesday on February 5th. We will be front and center."

When Hessburg briefed us earlier in the day she did, however, clearly lower expectations about what sort of turnout there might be for the caucusing. She predicted somewhere between 40-60,000 -- about half of the 100,000 Senator Harry Reid had projected earlier in the year. In 2004, only 9,000 Nevada Democrats bothered to participate in the complicated caucus process, an endeavor that can take a couple of hours instead of the few seconds you need to punch a ballot.

3:00 p.m. Will the real winner of tonight's debate, at least as measured by media coverage, be none other than Barry Bonds? When the news of his indictment just flashed on the monitors provided by CNN it caused an immediate stir. After all there ain't much else for us to do while waiting to wait some more. "Damn, this means my story out of here is gonna get bumped back to page A9," groaned one Bay Area newspaper reporter sitting behind me. '"The Bonds story is gonna be the big one." A few moments later, a TV crew of undetermined origin also began hurriedly packing up its gear. "we're bagging this story," said the cameraman. "Just got the call they're sending us to do Bonds." I believe this is what you call national priorities. It certainly isn't news judgement.

2:15 p.m. Hope dies hard. Just as I settled down into my assigned seat at the debate media center, comes official word that Senator Chris Dodd has closed his Nevada campaign office . One more loser in a city chock full of them. Question is, why did he open an office here in the first place?

On to more wholesome subjects. Like our usual peek into how tonight's televised sausage actually gets made. In case you don't know by now, let me break the news to you that the hordes of media that come to these sort of debates don't really come to the debates. What happens there, happens another side of a brick wall. Per usual, the media is segregated from the actual debate auditorium and is safely sealed off in a "filing center" where I know sit. In this case it''s an adjoining basketball gym with all the charm of a prison cafeteria. Folding chairs are lined up along eight hundred-foot long tables covered in red, white and blue tablecothes. A battery of flat-screen monitors provided by CNN are our only real contact with what happens on stage. WiFi provides my link to you.

The audience inside the hall? How do I know? Or anybody else for that matter. Though this debate is only one of 6 officially sanctioned by the Democratic Party, it's official sponsor CNN that decides who gets in -- not the party. News reports say that CNN solicited nominations from local Democratic interest groups and then has hand-picked 100 supposedly undecided voters to be in special part of the audience from which some questions might be allowed.

To me this all says more about the Democrats than it does about CNN. That the network would want to exercise maximum control over its "show" seems like something we should anticipate. But why do the Democrats so effortlessly abandon their own right to shape the event?

1:00 p.m. The UNLV campus is crackling with activity with campaign support groups manning tables ad holding pep rallies. I'm currently inside the campus Alum Center where the Nevada Democratic Party is staging a media luncheon. Officials are basically trying to convince the 100 or so reporters in the room (and perhaps themselves) with videos and Power Points that the January 19 Nevada caucus, the third in the nation, will really have a significant impact on the election.

The great fear, of course, is that by the time Iowa votes on January 3 and New Hampshire on January 8, the Democratic race could effectively be over.

But maybe not. "After New Hampshire, there's eleven full days with nothing to do except focus on us," caucus director Jean Hessburg tells The HuffPost. The great hope, then, is that perhaps two Democratic front-runners will split Iowa and Hew Hampshire and then come to Nevada as the rubber-match tie breaker before heading into the February 5 Super-Duper Tuesday.

The party officials here are also stressing that Nevada would be not only the "first test in the West," an increasingly important part of the Democratic electoral jigsaw, but would also be the first time the candidates are forced to compete in a significantly diverse state. Back to the party-generated Power Point.