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Can Obama -- and Vegas' sparkling new CityCenter -- improve the fortunes of Nevada Sen. Harry Reid?

July 9, 2010 | 11:43 am


Campaigns are all about symbolism, so it’s somewhat fitting that President Obama stumped for Sen. Harry Reid Thursday night at Aria, the centerpiece of the massive Las Vegas casino complex CityCenter.

When the 67-acre warren of slot machines and celebrity-chef restaurants opened last year, many locals touted it as a potential savior for the economically ravaged Las Vegas Strip. With a similar optimism, Nevada voters in 2008 overwhelmingly backed Obama in hopes Democrats could mend a state pocked with foreclosed homes, empty strip malls and dashed middle-class ambitions.

But neither a new resort nor a new crop of politicians solved Nevada’s problems -- and neither was capable of doing so. The state’s one-note, tourist-reliant economy simply cannot recover until the rest of the nation has enough cash and confidence to blow its paychecks on slot machines. (Obama was still in Las Vegas on Friday, calling on Congress to approve $5 billion in clean-energy manufacturing tax credits.)

In the meantime, however, Democrats must face a restless electorate that’s clamoring for jobs, a stable housing market and some sliver of hope. In Nevada, Reid has repeatedly used CityCenter as an example of how his Washington juice saved jobs – and as a weapon against his GOP rival, Sharron Angle, a "tea party" darling and strong opponent of government intervention.

One of Reid’s first ads featured Jim Murren, chief executive of MGM Resorts International (formerly MGM Mirage), saying Reid helped prevent CityCenter from tumbling into bankruptcy. Angle was asked this week by a caller to the Alan Stock radio show whether...

... she would have done the same. She replied:

No, I would not. You know the reason is because he may have saved jobs in CityCenter, but he actually cost jobs in other parts of the city. And you know that as well as I do. … 
We want something that is not going to bail out and stimulate -- what we want is deregulate, lower taxes, give businesses some breathing room to do what they do best which is create jobs. And just shuffling these, if you will, the deck chairs on the Titanic is not going to solve the problem.

While the Las Vegas hotel market is undoubtedly oversaturated, CityCenter’s thousands of jobs were welcomed by laid-off bellman and croupiers, since few industries provide such good wages to the working class. The Reid camp lambasted Angle – its only option when Nevada is saddled with a 14% unemployment rate.

In turn, Angle’s campaign released its first ad this week --  images of presumably jobless workers paired with a stark collection of statements:

When Harry Reid became Majority Leader, Nevada's unemployment was only 4.4%. Now Nevada unemployment hits 14%, leads nation.

Nevada takes dubious jobless title from Michigan.

In just three years, Nevada's economy has fallen from one of the strongest performing to possibly the weakest.

It’s tough to rebound from that. On Thursday, Reid and Obama tried.

The rally opened with remarks from CityCenter employee Penny Webster (“If [Angle] had her way, I would not have the job I have today”) and Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani (“If it’s not your job to create jobs, what the hell is your job?”). Then Obama launched into a full-scale offensive against criticisms of how he’s handled the economic free fall.Obama and Reid

He compared Republicans to a driver who careened his car into a ditch, then begged to get the keys back. He mocked House Minority Leader John Boehner for comparing the economic meltdown to an ant (though the Ohio Republican has contended that Democrats are twisting his words).

“He says, having this big financial regulatory reform, that's like killing an ant with a nuclear weapon. That's what he said,” Obama teased. “So he thinks the worst crisis since the worst -- since the Great Depression, he analogized to an ant. It’s like it should be a movie:  'The Ant That Ate the Economy.' ”

The crowd roared.

Obama also blamed the country’s malaise on the policies of President George W. Bush:

You cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, even if they don't need them and weren’t even asking for them. You cut rules and regulations for the most powerful industries -- big banks on Wall Street, big oil on the gulf, and then you cut working families loose. 

You tell people, 'You’re on your own. You don't have healthcare? Too bad, you’re on your own. Young person born into poverty, can’t afford college -- tough luck, you’re on your own.'

The 3,000 or so attendees lapped up the rhetoric – but this was an adoring crowd of mostly Democrats.

Will such talk sway rank-and-file Nevadans? That’s still unclear. Recovery will come slowly to the Silver State, economists say, and it likely won’t be as heady as during Nevada’s go-go years. Residents here clearly are fatigued – even the good headlines come with asterisks.  

Take CityCenter, which as a symbol of recovery is mixed at best. It’s now on track to be profitable, chief executive Murren has said. That’s, of course, after a first-quarter operating loss of $255 million.

-- Ashley Powers

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Photos: President Obama with Harry Reid in Las Vegas Thursday. Credit: Associated Press