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In Nevada, Sanders could punch a hole in Clinton's firewall

Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers never much liked the idea of a “firewall," and Nevada's caucuses Saturday may show why.

LAS VEGAS – Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers never much liked the idea of a “firewall” for their candidate in diverse states like Nevada, both because it insinuated there was a fire and because of the implications should insurgent Bernie Sanders break through. Walls are not very useful once broken in even one place, after all.

With just three days to go before Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, Sanders is poised to punch a hole in the metaphorical wall — or at least come close enough to doing so that it will raise questions about Clinton’s once-presumed lock on non-white voters in the Democratic presidential primary.

Sanders needs a win — or at least a “virtual tie,” as his campaign billed his narrow loss to Clinton in Iowa — in a diverse state, and Nevada is likely his best shot.

RELATED: Clinton now outspending Sanders on Nevada airwaves

“This is a state that’s more reflective of the electorate of the United States of America. So what comes out of here will deal with the mythology that there's an impregnable wall of color for Secretary Clinton that nobody can penetrate, and certainly not Bernie,” Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, who is one of Sanders most prominent Latino backers, told MSNBC. “If we break the wall here, then that whole mythology is out the window. Then it's a head-to-head race.”

Sanders will face major headwinds in the next contests in South Carolina and the so-called SEC primary of Southern states on March 1, which are dominated by African-American voters. But a win in Nevada would allow him to make the case that his support extends beyond white folks and that he can lead the Democratic Party’s coalition, which depends heavily on African-Americans and Latinos.

Is Nevada a must-win? Grijalva paused before replying, "It's a must-do-really-well.”

On Wednesday, the first major poll out of Nevada in months showed what all other signs have pointed to — a dead heat. The CNN/ORC poll found Clinton just a single point ahead of Sanders, 48 percent to 47 percent, with Sanders gaining 13 points since the pollster’s last survey in October.

On its face, that's a stunning turn of events for Clinton, who was thought to have a lock on the more diverse states and whose current campaign manager won Nevada for her in 2008. And it’s equally surprising for Sanders, who started as a blip in the polls and barely seemed to believe it himself when he declared on his first visit to Nevada in June, “We’re going to win here.”

But the vague outlines of a potential path to victory in the Silver State were visible even then.

Nevada State Sen. Tick Segerblom, an early Sanders backer, noted to reporters eight months ago that the Nevada caucuses are a low-turnout affair, where Sanders’ ability to generate enthusiasm, especially among young people, could make all the difference.

Only 117,000 Nevadans turned out to caucus in 2008 — that's about one in five registered Democrats statewide. It was a close race, with Clinton winning the popular vote, but Obama edging ahead on delegates.

In this year's close race, a Sanders aide quipped that a single Sanders rally-worth of caucus-goers could tip the balance for the senator. As with Iowa, Sanders will benefit if turnout is high. And unlike Iowa, Nevada’s caucus falls on a weekend, when students and workers are more likely to be free.

RELATED: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton battle over black endorsements

Meanwhile, the caucus electorate is likely not as diverse as many believe — a point Clinton aides awkwardly tried to make before backing down. According to 2008 entrance polls, 15% of caucus-goers were Latino, 15% were African-American, and 3% were Asian-American. Meanwhile, 65% were white.

Still, Latinos are key and the Sanders campaign has a small opening in attracting Latino millennials, an age demographic that already shows outsize enthusiasm for the Vermont senator. Young people ages 18 to 33 make up 28% of eligible voters in Nevada, nearly half of whom are Hispanic.

“We see the same enthusiasm with young Latino voters that you see with the rest of the general population in the U.S.,” said Erika Andiola, national Latino press secretary for the Sanders campaign. “That’s our biggest focus — organizing the young people who are very, very enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders. Once that happens, we’re going to be able to change many hearts and minds.”

Sanders supporters have also suggested Nevada is uniquely suited to the senator’s populist message. The tourism-dependent state was hit especially hard by the recession and economic insecurity lingers. And few places more obviously showcase the power of billionaires and corporate titans than Las Vegas, where their names adorn glitzy hotels and casinos. They employ thousands of workers and control much of the local economy, exerting political power to advance their aims locally and in Washington.

Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and Republican mega-donor, even recently bought the state’s largest newspaper in a secretive deal presumably meant to extend his influence. “You know who he is,” Sanders said in June of Adelson, accusing him and his fellow moguls of trying to undermine the “foundations of American democracy.”

Lucy Flores, a rising Latina star in Nevada state politics who is competing in a tight Democratic primary for Congress, pointed to Sanders’ message on economic inequality — not immigration — as the primary reason for why she’s backing his presidential run. She is one of the few prominent Latinos to endorse Sanders in Nevada, where she acknowledged that name-recognition alone will be a difficult obstacle for his campaign to overcome.

“We recognize that this is an uphill battle,” Flores said. “I don’t know if we’re going to win it, but I’m certainly feeling energized.”

Even so, Clinton still has some enormous benefits in her favor. And even as her campaign aides work hard to lower expectations, some allies remain confident.

“I think we're going to win and win big,” Nevada Rep. Dina Titus, who represents Las Vegas, told MSNBC, dismissing concerns about expectations management. “I remain really confident.”

Titus pointed to Clinton’s superior field organization, which has been on the ground since April. In contrast, Sanders did not hire his first staffer in Nevada until October. Organization can be even more critical in caucuses than primaries, since the rules are complicated and the window to participate is narrow.

According to the CNN poll, Clinton retains a comfortable lead among the state's women, who were a disproportionate portion of the caucus electorate in 2008. And while the sample in that survey was too small to calculate her support along minorities, she generally outperforms Sanders among Latinos nationwide.

RELATED: Who will win Nevada's Democratic caucuses?

Her allies, like Rep. Xavier Becerra, have stepped up their attacks on Sanders’ "spotty" immigration record lately, pointing to his 2007 vote against a comprehensive immigration reform bill, among other issues. “We've been hearing a lot from [Sanders] about supporting immigrant families of late. Where was he before he ran for president?” Becerra tweeted Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Titus noted that the state has a rapidly growing Asian-American population, and said Clinton has done a much better job organizing in that community, "I don't see any kind of inroads that Bernie Sanders has made in the Asian community. Turnout there will make a difference,” she said.

Sanders, on the other hand, is focusing much of his time and organization resources on the northern part of the state, which tends to be whiter than the Las Vegas area. Obama won big in Reno and more rural areas eight years ago, racking up delegates there while Clinton focused on the state’s major population center of Las Vegas.

Clinton also recently re-took air superiority in the state, edging out Sanders in total spending on television ads after several weeks in which he was outspending her.

“It was Hillary’s support among blacks and Latinos that helped her win the popular vote in 2008,” said DNC Hispanic Caucus Vice Chair Andres Ramirez, who is supporting Clinton. “When you look at the Clintons, both Hillary and Bill have performed well with these groups. It will be much harder for a different candidate to come in and try to undermine their standing with blacks and Latinos.”