LAS VEGAS (AP) - President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney are battling more than just each other in diverse and politically divided Nevada.
The president also is fighting against Nevada's dismal economy while Romney faces a better-organized and better-funded state Democratic Party machine with a victorious track record.
Those factors are leveling the playing field here, and Obama and Romney head into the summer seemingly locked in a close race in a state that both sides expect will be fiercely contested - and a true toss-up - throughout the fall.
Both are making Nevada and its six Electoral College votes a
priority in their state-by-state strategies as they look to amass
the 270 votes needed to win the White House.
Obama was making his second trip to the state in less than a
month on Thursday, with a Las Vegas event aimed at wooing young,
college-aged voters. Romney was just in the city a week ago for a
fundraiser with Donald Trump. So far, at least $5.6 million in TV
ads has been spent in the state, with Obama and his Democratic
allies spending roughly $1.2 million more than Republican outside
groups. Romney, himself, has yet to go on the air.
Nevada's outcome is all but certain to come down to a huge swath
of independent and undecided voters here, many of whom say they'll
choose the candidate with the right economic prescriptions.
"This state is so troubled, we need someone committed to fixing
it, and I don't see that," says Robert Aguirre, an independent
voter who said he had backed Republican John McCain and Democrat
Bill Clinton. Aguirre said he is confident Obama won't soon return
jobs to Nevada, but he isn't convinced Romney is up for the task,
either, saying: "I haven't really seen him here, I haven't heard
him talk about Nevada."
Lisa Smith, a 23-year-old Democrat, has hesitations about Obama
this time around.
"He has done a lot of good - the health care law, student
loans," Smith said. "But we still don't have enough jobs for
everyone in Nevada who is hurting,"
Indeed, here, perhaps more than in any other state, the race is
shaped by the economy.
The state's 11.7 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the
nation, largely because of a tourism industry and service sector
that has never rebounded from the Great Recession. And its once
booming housing market has become a foreclosure wasteland, with one
in every 300 homes receiving a foreclosure filing in April,
according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac.
Those woes have left Obama grasping to hold on to a state he won
handily in the 2008 election. So far, he has spent more than $3
million on television advertising here and has deployed a team of
volunteers across the state.
Romney has had electoral success in Nevada before, too. He won
the state's Republican caucus in February with more than 50 percent
of the vote, four years after prevailing here during his first
But, in Nevada like elsewhere, Romney has been slow to ramp up
his general election campaign and trails the president in
fundraising, campaign organization, Hispanic voter outreach and
media buys. He also only recently started to hire Nevada field
staff and won't open his first northern Nevada campaign offices
until later this month.
For all their challenges, Obama and Romney also have
opportunities in Nevada with certain demographic groups.
Obama is popular with more progressive voters in laid-back Las
Vegas, and his campaign thinks it can ramp up voter turnout among
Democratic-leaning Hispanics. They make up 26 percent of Nevada's
population and many are immigrants from Mexico. Some have expressed
reservations about the Republican Party's anti-immigration
rhetoric, and that could hurt Romney.
Among them is Nevada Republican Ann Martinez, who says she likes
Romney, but is troubled by what she described as his reluctance to
discuss a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration law.
"We have all these people here without papers and what are we
going to do with them? You can't pretend they aren't already here,
working here," said Martinez, a church secretary.
The core of Romney's support in Nevada likely will be made up of
conservative, tea party voters in the state's northern reaches. Tea
partyers concerned about Romney's conservative credentials likely
will overlook their worries and choose him because of a desire to
vote Obama out of office come November.
Romney also can count on strong support from his fellow Mormons.
They represent about 9 percent of Nevada's population, and reliably
show up to vote, mainly for Republican candidates.
Obama's campaign insists Nevada is leaning in its favor and
argues that Romney has economic challenges in the state, too. They
note that Romney once said the housing crisis should be allowed to
run its course. "Let it hit bottom," he said.
Beyond that, Romney also must figure out how to counter Nevada's
proven Democratic get-out-the-vote machine. The state party is so
good at identifying its supporters and making sure they head to the
polls that Democrats managed to re-elect Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid in 2010, despite his widespread unpopularity.
In contrast, Nevada's Republican Party is the picture of
disorganization and rivalry.
Ron Paul supporters have succeeded in taking over the
organization in recent months, hurting its ability to collect
dollars from old-guard campaign donors alarmed at the Nevada GOP's
constant turmoil and posing a challenge for Romney.
Still, Nevada Republicans say any challenger to an incumbent
president would start off as the underdog.
"Mitt Romney was just selected as the presumptive nominee about
a month ago and Obama has been running for re-election for three
and a half years," said Darren Littell, a Republic National
Committee spokesman who set up camp in Las Vegas this month to help
get Romney elected.
While Romney has yet to run any general election ads in Nevada,
several outside groups are on the air and providing cover for him.
Nevada is a true swing-voting state. It chose Clinton in 1992
and 1996, before swinging Republican in 2000 and 2004 for George W.
Bush. It backed Obama in 2008. And if history is any guide, it
could again choose the eventual White House victor, as it has every
four years since 1980.