Presidential Race Zeroes In On Nevada

Nevada has just six electoral votes, but it's much fought over in presidential elections. In 2008, it gave an unexpectedly big boost to Democratic candidate Barack Obama. This year the contest is shaping up to be much closer as Nevada copes with both the worst unemployment in the nation and one of the country's highest home foreclosure rates.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Nevada has just six electoral votes, but it's a state that's much fought over in presidential elections. In 2008, Nevada gave an unexpectedly big boost to Democratic candidate Barack Obama. He carried the state by more than 12 points, thanks to unions and the Hispanic vote.

This year, the contest is shaping up to be much closer, as Nevada copes with both the worst unemployment in the nation and one of the country's highest home foreclosure rates.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It's Las Vegas and it's July, and the thermometer on the car's dashboard reads 111 degrees in the noon hour. Still, volunteer canvassers Yolanda Florian and Faviola Morales, clipboards in hand, step out onto the heat of the parking lot of an apartment complex on the city's east side. Air conditioning units hum as they approach each door.

YOLANDA FLORIAN: Let's start here and we'll go back.

FAVIOLA MORALES: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

GONYEA: Florian and Morales are members of the Service Employees International Union. This is a working-class neighborhood. Lot's of people aren't home. Some are probably sleeping. Las Vegas is a city where night shifts are common. But about every fourth or fifth door opens up, and introductions follow.

FLORIAN: Are you registered to vote, then, already?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.

FLORIAN: You are? That's great, that's always good news. One of the things that we're coming around, making sure people are registered to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: As long as you're for Obama.

MORALES: And we are. And we're going to leave you this one, anyway. I know you probably have the information.

GONYEA: This man is an Obama supporter. That's what the canvassers want to hear. But they still ask a series of questions to make sure he knows when Election Day is and to make sure he knows where to vote. That's a huge issue in this state this year, because so many people lost their jobs or lost their homes or both, forcing them to relocate.

JOHN RALSTON: The foreclosure problem's been a big, big issue in voter registration.

GONYEA: That's John Ralston, a Las Vegas political columnist. To vote in Nevada, you need to be registered at your current address. Ralston says it's been a problem for Democrats, who have seen a huge advantage in registration shrink as a result. It's all part of a bad economic climate in the state, which includes a jobless rate of 11.7 percent.

RALSTON: I think you could argue that we have the worst economy in the country because we've been so dependent for so long on such a narrow economic base of gaming and not much else - construction to some extent - and that's all just collapsed.

GONYEA: Republicans are trying to capitalize on all of this. Phil Perrine owns a real estate company in Las Vegas and supports Romney.

PHIL PERINE: It's housing. It's bankruptcies. It's joblessness, and they all combine and they all feed on one another, so to speak. And you've got to attack it on all fronts and probably the jobs situation is the most important.

GONYEA: But if Republicans want economic woes to help Romney, the candidate failed to help himself when he said there should be no government help to deal with the housing and foreclosure problems. He was talking to the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review Journal last fall, and the session was videotaped.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

MITT ROMNEY: As to what to do to for the housing industry specifically, and are there - are there things that you can do to encourage housing. One is don't try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom. Allow investors to...

GONYEA: It was akin to his remarks about the struggling domestic auto industry when he said let Detroit go bankrupt.

But the Obama campaign also has its own problems with Nevada. The state's largest union and its most politically powerful, the Culinary Union, has said it is going to sit this one out - not because of discontent with President Obama, but because they're in the midst of critical contract negotiations, and they've got a difficult organizing drive underway at some non-union casinos.

Culinary Union leader D. Taylor says these concerns are more critical to his members.

D. TAYLOR: We can't do three things at once. I always say I can walk and chew gum. I can't walk, chew gum and juggle at the same time. I just can't. It's not possible. And like I said, the contracts are our most important thing.

GONYEA: Right now, polls in Nevada give the president a narrow lead - a far cry from his landslide victory in the state in '08. But it's still July, and as hot as it is in Las Vegas right now, the political contest won't come to a full boil until after Labor Day.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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