Reno, Nevada – President Barack Obama is headed to Nevada Friday, to refocus his campaign's attention on the economy and Latino voters.
Obama was to promote housing policies to help homeowners avoid foreclosure in a quick visit Friday to struggling Nevada, which ranks second in the nation in foreclosed homes and has the highest unemployment in the country.
Obama won in Nevada in his 2008 presidential election. But the economy presents new challenges as well as an opportunity for his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
"Whether or not he wins it again will depend on how enthusiastically labor works for him there, because they are such a critical part of getting out Hispanic vote, and the Hispanic turnout," said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "The critical thing is enthusiasm."
Indeed, Obama's push in Nevada includes heavily courting Hispanic voters.
Latinos voters are an increasingly important demographic after Nevada's Hispanic population grew to 26.5 percent in 2010, according to census data. Latino voters represented 9 percent of the electorate in 2010.
This election cycle Romney has staked out a more conservative policy toward immigration, and his campaign has yet to mount an organized effort to attract Hispanic voters.
Earlier this week, the Romney campaign found itself in an awkard situation after the Republican National Committee Hispanic Outreach Director Bettina Inclan said in a press conference call that Romney "to my understanding, he's still deciding what his position on immigration is."
Later, after social media sites exploded with the comment and pointed criticism, Inclan said she had misspoken and provided a link to Romney's views on various immigration issues on his campaign website.
Obama's campaign staff has taken a head start in the courting of Latino voters, taking to Latino commnities around the country and airing a new Spanish-language ad in Colorado, Florida and Nevada. It features testimonials from three Hispanic supporters, including one of his campaign field organizers in Nevada.
"Democrats have been engaging the community for a longer time with a sustained effort, and Republicans now are realizing they have to do that," said Jennifer Sevilla Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a national conservative group, in an interview earlier this year. "Just because you're a Republican or a conservative, you can't be afraid to go into the community just because there might be some disagreement."
Whether or not [Obama] wins it again will depend on how enthusiastically labor works for him there, because they are such a critical part of getting out Hispanic vote, and the Hispanic turnout.
- Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster
David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noted that Democrats are also demonstrating the benefits of Obama's health care law to Latinos. But he said ultimately the candidates' stances on immigration will be the leading issue in determining the vote.
"Most of the data indicates that immigration either begins or ends the conversation," he said in an email message.
In the RNC's media conference call, RNC officials doggedly tried to keep reporters' attention on the ailing economy, and what they said was Obama's role in making the American Dream elusive for many Latinos.
But the conference call, which had sought to announce the GOP's new, stepped-up effort to win over Latino voters by localizing Hispanic voter outreach in six crucial states -- Nevada is one of them -- ended up being largely a tug-of-war between RNC officials who persisted in talking about what they described as Obama's failed economic policies and reporters who wanted to talk about Romney's hard-line immigration views.
Four years ago, Nevada was economically reeling from the recession and Obama and union allies seized on the anxiety to mobilize voters and win the state. Today, the Nevada is still in dire straits and the economy belongs to the president.
Obama was stopping in Reno, looking to shore up his support and draw attention to housing proposals that he says Congress must pass to help homeowners struggling with their mortgages.
"Obviously it is the swing state that has recovered the slowest of any. It was hit the hardest," said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group that has examined the landscape in battleground states.
The Reno visit caps a two-day trip otherwise devoted to fundraising, including a gala event at the Los Angeles home of actor George Clooney on Thursday night that raised nearly $15 million.
Obama acknowledged the challenges that a slow recovery means for his re-election in his remarks at Clooney's sprawling canyon home.
"Part of the reason it's going to be harder," he said, "is because folks are still hurting out there."
In Reno, Obama will play up earlier efforts to make it easier for homeowners to refinance their mortgages, an effort that the White House says has increased refinancing applications by nationwide by 50 percent, and by 237 percent in Nevada.
Obama will visit a working couple selected because they benefited from the eased rules.
Nevada's unemployment rate was 12 percent in March, worst in the nation. As of last month, Nevada's foreclosure rate trailed only Arizona among states. And the Nevadans most affected by the state's poor economy are the very voters who rallied behind Obama four years ago.
The question with those voters is less whether they will vote against Obama, but whether they will be as energized to head for the polls and vote in the first place.
Obama can also benefit from the political organization Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has built in the state, one that helped Reid fend off a tough challenge two years ago from tea party-backed Republican Sharon Angle.
Angle's campaign was seen as doomed after she expressed hard-line -- some said offensive -- views regarding illegal immigration. Her tone -- slammed as anti-Hispanic by many Latino leaders -- alienated many Latinos who had not considered immigration among their main concerns.
Latinos turned out to the polls in significant numbers -- a factor that was seen as pivotal to Reid's re-election.
For Romney, the state's struggles coupled with a small but cohesive Mormon population present a potential election day payoff. A Mormon, Romney benefited from the support of Latter-day Saints church members during the state's Republican caucuses. Though only 7 percent of the state's population, Mormons participated heavily in the caucuses, and 90 percent went for Romney.
In Reno, Obama is going to push for mortgage refinancing legislation he has asked Congress to approve. To contrast with the president's plan, his campaign and his political advisers have pointed to Romney's past assertion that the solution to the foreclosure crisis is to let the housing market hit bottom.
Earlier this year, Obama proposed lower lending rates for millions of borrowers who have not been able to get out from under burdensome mortgages. Obama would pay for the estimated $5 billion to $10 billion cost with a fee on large banks. But that plan faces an uphill fight in Congress. The White House says it would not insist on the bank fees as a means to finance the plan.
This story contains material from The Associated Press.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente