Obama Leads In Nevada Despite State's Poor Economy

Nevada is one of the eight most hotly contest battleground states of the 2012 election. President Obama carried it by a wide margin four years ago. But since he took office, the Nevada unemployment rate has gotten significantly worse and is now at 12.1 percent. Still, polls continue to show the race is very close there, with Mr. Obama holding a narrow lead, while Mitt Romney has so far been unable to capitalize on the state's deep economic woes.

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Nevada, like Ohio, has been getting a lot of attention this year. It's a battleground state that the president won easily four years ago. Last week, the state unemployment rate ticked up to 12.1 percent; that's the worst jobless rate in the country. But while Nevada's troubles have opened the door for Mitt Romney, the latest polls suggest he's not yet winning over voters. NPR's Don Gonyea has that story.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Since the start of his campaign, Mitt Romney has seen Nevada as a place to spread his economic message: tax cuts, spending cuts and fewer regulations. This is from Las Vegas last September, when he unveiled his 59-point plan for the economy.

MITT ROMNEY: This is an effort to really update our economic strategy for this century, and the next century. This is recognition that the old ways have principles that will work forever; that growth is the foundation of economic prosperity.

GONYEA: It was a speech for a state still reeling from the slump in tourism, the collapse in the construction industry, and the flood of home foreclosures. But if Romney was looking for a boost from all that, it was quickly offset just weeks later; when he told the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review Journal, there should be no federal help in dealing with housing and foreclosure problems.

ROMNEY: And are there - are the things that you can do that - 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 buy homes. Put renters...

GONYEA: Again, all of that was last year. Since then, Romney hasn't gained much traction in the state against President Obama, who has led in nearly every poll. Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada at Reno, says the economic numbers create a huge opportunity but that so far, Romney's failed to demonstrate that he's an acceptable alternative.

ERIC HERZIK: And Romney has come into the state and given few details; simply said, well, we'll cut taxes and cut regulations - unspecified - and everything will be better. But Nevadans have seen this story before. We don't have a state income tax, for example. So if it's all about taxes, well, we should be leading the nation in the recovery.

GONYEA: Looking at the map, Las Vegas to the south, with its strong union presence, always goes big for Democrats. Rural Nevada goes Republican. Up north is Reno, in Washoe County, the battleground within the battleground state. Dave Aiazzi is Reno's vice mayor, a lifelong Republican who switched to independent a few years ago. He voted for Mr. Obama in '08. This year, he says he's leaning Obama, but that he's still undecided. He says he needs more than he's heard so far, from Romney.

VICE MAYOR DAVE AIAZZI: What would help us here is, are you going to help build some of the roads and infrastructures, to put people back to work? I haven't seen where he's been in favor of doing some of that. It's always been cutting; not where we're going to do something, to put people back to work. Just cutting doesn't - to me - put people to work.

GONYEA: But Washoe County Republican Party chairman Dave Buell argues that people in this part of the state, just need to see Romney more. The GOP nominee has been to Reno three times recently; including for a fundraiser, and for speeches to the conventions of the VFW and the National Guard. But he's not held a big rally in the northern part of the state, during the general election battle.

DAVE BUELL: I think people here are just dying to see a public event. Ann Romney is going to be here tomorrow; we expect a big crowd for that. And I know Gov. Romney will be here soon; and I think that will help push the numbers up, especially in Washoe County.

GONYEA: The Romney campaign is also hoping the state's large Mormon population will help offset the growing Hispanic vote in November. But both parties agree, the ultimate focus remains the economy. That's why the incumbent hopes to be judged not against the numbers, but against his challenger.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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