Will Nevada Remain A Blue State In November?

President Obama visits Nevada on his post-State of the Union trip Thursday. He won the state in 2008. But with unemployment now at nearly 13 percent, the state will be more of a challenge in this fall's presidential election.

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Let's look at the politics of one of the five states where President Obama is campaigning this week: Nevada. That's where he is today. In 2008, the president won Nevada with a 12-point advantage. With unemployment now at nearly 13 percent, though, the state will be much more of a challenge this November. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the state Republican Party is having its own trouble in mounting a strong campaign against the president.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Steven Lambert heads to his computer science class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He says four years ago he was impressed with President Obama, especially with all the outreach to students here via social networks. This year, not so much.

STEVEN LAMBERT: I do think he could have made a good president, it just seems like he got in and got overwhelmed, because, I mean, we did want a change. And it was unfortunate that we didn't get it.

KAHN: Saddled with high tuition and crippling loan debt, many students here say they aren't so sure they'll pick Mr. Obama again. And away from campus, unemployment in Nevada is nearly double what it was four years ago. Gaming and tourism, the mainstay of the economy, are struggling. The foreclosure rate is the highest in the country.

But economics aside, Zach Hudson, the state Democratic Party's spokesman, says Democrats are energized. He points to last weekend's Democratic caucuses, which drew more than 12,000 voters, even though President Obama was the only one on the ballot.

ZACH HUDSON: These weren't just 12,000 voters. These were 12,000 volunteers who are going to be at the forefront of our grassroots campaign, the people who are going to be knocking on doors, making phone calls to re-elect the president.

KAHN: And there are still more Democrats registered to vote in the state than Republicans. UNLV political scientist Doug Damore says Republicans aren't doing enough to keep up with Nevada's changing demographics. Latinos made up 11 percent of the electorate in 2008.

DOUG DAMORE: They haven't done the outreach into these - into the minorities communities. They haven't really gone after young voters the way the Democrats have done. They've just sort of gone to the tried-and-true. And, you know, as I like to say, they're not making old, white voters the way they used to.

KAHN: And the state GOP is struggling to get organized. They've had five party chairs in the past two years. Damore says even setting a date for the party's caucus was chaotic. It's finally scheduled for February 4th.

DAMORE: They brought in some talent to help them organize the caucuses here, but it's not at the level that the Democrats do.

KAHN: Adding to the picture is the recent influence of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. He gave a $5 million shot to a pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC to help in South Carolina. This week, his wife gave another five million to help Gingrich in Florida. Adelson even convinced the Republican Party here in Nevada to extend the hours of its Saturday caucus past sundown, so observant Jews like himself can participate.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please, quiet. Ladies, woo-hoo.

KAHN: Gingrich's recent good fortune was the talk at this week's luncheon meeting of the Southern Hills Republican Women's group. More than a hundred people enjoyed breaded chicken and pasta at the Revere Golf Club, with its stunning view of the Vegas Strip. Jason Neal Williams came with his wife of 46 years. He says Gingrich sure is shaking up the race.

JASON NEAL WILLIAMS: I think he's probably the smartest one on the stage, knows more about the government than any of them up there. I'd love to see him debate Obama. I'd love it.

KAHN: Williams says he hasn't quite made up his mind yet who he's going to vote for, but he's excited that Nevada is relevant again, even though they are fifth-in-the-nation in the Republican nominating process.

Betty Mauer, a retired accountant, is excited, too. She's all signed up to lead a caucus site. Mauer supported Romney four years ago and says she's sticking with him again.

BETTY MAUER: Because he's about the only Republican that's going to make it to beat Obama.

KAHN: She says making sure Obama isn't in the White House for four more years is plenty to motivate Nevada Republicans.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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