Lm Otero, Associated Press
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney holds up a 2002 Olympics jacket handed to him for an autograph during a campaign stop in Elko, Nev. Romney was chief of the Utah Winter Games.

This small, northern Nevada city known mostly for its gold mines and state-licensed brothels became a temporary epicenter for the 2008 presidential election, hosting four of the leading candidates in less than 24 hours.

Starting Thursday evening with a visit by Sen. John Edwards and continuing Friday with a morning stop by Mitt Romney and afternoon rallies for Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, residents of Elko (population 18,183) had a rare opportunity to see, hear and question some of the contenders for the nation's highest office.

Already a surprisingly popular spot for presidential hopefuls during the past few months — Obama opened a campaign office in the small city last summer, while Romney and Clinton visited in the fall — Thursday and Friday's activity turned Elko into a primary focal point for political news.

Although Elko, both the city and county, are heavily Republican, it was actually the Democrats who stirred the most people. Both Clinton and Obama, whose rallies were practically back-to-back, packed hundreds of people into high school gymnasiums, while Romney's early morning speech and Edwards on Thursday night drew smaller, but still sizable, crowds.

Part of the excitement for Democrats is the pivotal role Nevada is playing that party's nomination, one that Republicans are lacking. In fact, Romney is the only Republican candidate in the state after he essentially ceded South Carolina to the other Republican hopefuls.

At the Clinton rally, retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark and 2004 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, introduced Clinton to a crowd of about 1,000 supporters gathered at the Elko Indian Colony gymnasium. Greeting the cheering crowd with the assurance that "I knew I had to get to Elko," Clinton shared stories of Nevadans she'd spoken with during the campaign and addressed her top campaign issues.

Clinton told the story of a Reno construction worker who told her about paying into his company insurance plan over the course of his employment, only to be dropped after being diagnosed with cancer. Without insurance, he didn't know how he was going to pay for the $50,000 operation he required.

The account, Clinton said, was just one of many similar stories from "voices that have been unheard." She promised that she was the candidate who would listen to these voices, and she has a plan for "real change."

Clinton assured the crowd that health care would be among her top priorities, along with addressing declining wages across the country and investigating the financial debacle associated with the country's mortgage lending industry. She singled out the conduct of a former Countrywide Financial Corp. executive who left the company with a $110 million severance package and laid some blame for the crisis at the doorstep of an address in her home state of New York ... Wall Street.

Clinton criticized the handling by the President Bush's administration of recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina and the current war in Iraq. She promised to initiate a plan, within 60 days of taking office, to get troops out of Iraq.

Additionally, she would like Congress to send her "every bill that Bush has vetoed."

Elko resident Mary Walters, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, was attending the rally to show her support for Clinton. She said she had "seen a lot of changes" in Nevada and felt Clinton would do the best job of addressing current problems in education and health care.

Obama entered the packed Elko High School gymnasium after an introduction by his wife, Michelle Obama, and accompanied by the Elko High Pep Band. About 1,500 people were in attendance, many holding banners with Obama's campaign slogan, "Stand for Change."

Obama began the rally with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that he has used throughout the campaign, telling the audience he decided to run because of the "fierce energy of now," explaining that now is the time for urgent change, a "defining moment in our history."

Obama visited his campaign issues, promising a plan for universal health care, income tax reform and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. He noted that addressing climate issues could have both environmental and economic advantages through the creation of "green jobs." He also pledged a foreign policy approach that will "keep us safe and maintain our standing in the world."

Obama dismissed criticism that he hasn't spent enough time in Washington and said his detractors would love to "season him, stew him ... and boil all the hope out of him."

In response to a question from the audience asking "where is our government and who is our government," Obama said, "Right here in this room." The response drew a standing ovation.

Paul Hughes, Elko resident and self-described Democrat, said he attended both Clinton's earlier rally and

Obama's. Hughes said he was "impressed very much" by Clinton's presentation but had decided he would be caucusing for Obama after Obama's rally.

There were more cowboy hats than baseball caps among the 200 or so local residents who came to hear Romney speak at a rally in the auditorium of the new Adobe Middle School. He told the approximately 200 people that his approach to the economy was better for them that what the Democrats are proposing.

"The only place you could lose more money than the Las Vegas gambling tables was by watching the Democrats, because they're going to raise taxes on everybody," he said to applause.

Attendees at the various rallies, some of whom made it to multiple events, were excited at the opportunity for Elko to play a role in the election and give everyone, young and old, a real-life civics lesson.

Carolyn Bowers, Elko, attended Clinton's rally with her 12-year-old granddaughter, Amy. Bowers said she hadn't made a decision about whom to support, which was why she planned on attending Obama's town hall meeting as well.

"This is a great opportunity for my granddaughter to see how politics works," Bowers said.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: araymond@desnews.com