Obama, Romney locked in tight race in Nevada

President Obama travels to Nevada on Wednesday to further his attempt to win the state’s six electoral votes in the face of the country’s worst unemployment rate and a sputtering housing market.

The conventional wisdom around the Silver State is that while Obama faces significant headwinds to repeat his 2008 victory in Nevada, he remains the favorite given his slight but steady lead in polls.

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“With 56 days to go, basically both campaigns would privately acknowledge that Obama is ahead,” said Jon Ralston, one of the state’s top political commentators. “The question is, how far ahead? The Obama folks think they’re above the margin of error. And the Romney folks think they’re within the margin of error.”

Both Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney are hoping heavy turnout by key portions of Nevada’s electorate will put them over the top.

For Obama, it is Nevada’s ever-growing Hispanic population, which observers expect will make up 16 percent or more of the electorate in November. Romney has struggled to win over Hispanics turned off by his tough position on illegal immigration, according to polls.

For Romney, it’s Nevada’s Mormons, who make up about 7 percent of the state’s population.

Ralston says the president is in the lead in part because of his advantage with Hispanics.

He argues Obama has had “some success” in turning the election “into a choice, not a referendum,” a key for the president’s team given Nevada’s horrid economy. The state’s unemployment rate stands at 12 percent, and it has the highest foreclosure rate in the country.

Given those statistics, Romney still has a chance.

But Ralston also thinks the president will benefit from a strong ground game — due in part to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D) well-oiled campaign machine.

While Team Obama has been building its grassroots effort in the state since 2008, the Reid operation “kept it going because of all the work they put into it” during Reid’s competitive Senate race against Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle, according to a Democratic strategist familiar with the state.

“The race with Sharron Angle just proved how deep that infrastructure is,” the Democratic strategist said. “If the race comes down to ground game and infrastructure and who has a better plan, then Obama will win it.”

Eric Herzik, the chairman of the department of political science at the University of Nevada at Reno, said he’s been witness to the Obama campaign’s intensified voter registration push, which led to Democrats out-registering Republicans by a 2-to-1 ratio last month.

“If I’m Romney, this has to worry me,” Herzik said. “The Republicans have a huge problem in organization.”

Both Obama and Romney have spent a considerable amount of time in Nevada. Romney campaigned in the state on Tuesday, addressing the National Guard Association conference. The president’s trip on Thursday marks his third visit in one month. During the visit, aides say, he will “continue to lay out the choice the people of Nevada are facing in this election.”

“The stakes are high, the election is going to be close and the president will be fighting for every vote,” an Obama campaign aide said. 

Romney’s campaign says the economic arguments will win over state voters to his side, providing a gateway to 270 electoral votes. The governor must win a majority of the eight or nine battleground states being contested by the two campaigns and cannot afford to give up Nevada’s votes.

Romney campaign aides — who expect to have about a dozen field offices set up before Election Day — predict Obama’s team will have a problem turning out voters. 

“No state has borne the brunt of the president’s policies like Nevada,” said Mason Harrison, the Romney campaign’s Nevada communications director. “Despite the fact that President Obama has spent the entire summer trying to distract from his failed economic record, he hasn’t been able to convince Nevadans that they are better off than they were almost four years ago.”

Obama won the state by 12 points in 2008, but even some Democrats express worry that they wouldn’t have the same outcome this time around given the economy.

“The situation definitely isn’t as good as it was in 2008,” the Democratic strategist said. “There’s still big economic uncertainty there, and there are still big problems with housing. People are just taking more sober assessments of this race than they were in 2008.

“It’s going to be close,” the strategist added. “Very close. It just means we’re going to have to work harder.

Herzik said that Nevadans are “willing to look at an alternative” particularly because of the current state of the economy but that Romney has yet to come up with a message that resonates with voters as a viable alternative.”

He pointed to Romney’s comments to a Las Vegas newspaper where he suggested letting the housing market bottom out.

“Our housing market is as bad as it gets, there’s no relief in sight and no real uptick in sight,” Herzik said. “But they don’t have a better message.

On the other hand, Obama is “the known commodity,” he said.

“I think many Nevadans aren’t going to say his plan is leading us out, but they also aren’t blaming him,” Herzik said. “They know kind of at a gut level that this is bigger than one man’s policies.

“Obama’s not as popular as he was four years ago but … Nevadans are willing to stay the course unless they hear something better from the other side.”