Las Vegas fumes over Obama's anti-tourism rant

Associated Press
President Barack Obama speaks in Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. Obama, in Las Vegas during a three-day trip to the West Coast, announced new rules to help homeowners with little or no equity in their home to refinance their mortgages to avoid foreclosures. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — President Barack Obama has a Sin City problem that won't go away.

Obama is counting on Nevada's support for reelection next year. He easily won the Las Vegas Valley in 2008 and will probably win the largely Democratic, urban center again next year.

But Nevada state officials and residents of this economically ravaged state are still fuming over comments they perceived as rants against the tourism industry. Las Vegas city leaders have been feuding with him over the comments since he first made them two years ago, and Republicans are hoping that fury will point voters in their direction.

The friction has resurfaced as Obama visited a Las Vegas neighborhood Monday as part of a nationwide tour to sell his jobs plan. The stop came as Republican presidential candidates, business titans and former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman continue to remind people that Obama has twice hated on Las Vegas tourism — this western swing state's largest employer.

The jabs are notable because casino-dependent Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, and Obama can't afford to have voters blame him as his Republican rivals try to convince the nation that they would do a better job of turning the stalled economy around. Nevada's unemployment remained steady at 13.4 percent last month.

"He said it more than once," said former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a national Republican committeeman. "You can't un-ring the bell. You have to live with what you say. It just shows a lack of understanding of the engine that drives the state."

The feud began in 2009, when Obama admonished corporations using federal bailout money: "You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime." A year later, Obama warned families against gambling away college tuition: "You don't blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you're trying to save for college."

The call for financial responsibility didn't sit well with some Las Vegans, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Nevada all lashed back at the time. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Obama's most prominent ally in Congress and Nevada's senior senator, told Obama to "lay off Las Vegas."

With Obama campaigning for a second term, the president's critics are eager to call the outcry to mind.

"Perception is reality," said Republican Rep. Joe Heck, who represents southern Nevada. "After those statements were made, we had conventions call and pull out, so it did in fact cost Las Vegas business."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won Nevada's caucuses in 2008, pointed to Obama's Vegas statements while campaigning here last week. He reminded voters of them in a statement sent out before Obama landed in Nevada Monday.

"My guess is it did not help when he talked down Las Vegas as a convention city, did it?" Romney told dozens of supporters gathered at his campaign headquarters in Las Vegas last week.

Obama did not allude to the tensions when he spoke on a residential street in Las Vegas Monday, nor did he promote area tourism as he had promised Reid and local leaders that he would. Instead, he urged members of Congress opposed to his jobs act to tour neighborhoods reeling from foreclosures.

"They should come and talk to the families out here in Nevada," he said.

Amanda Hulsizer, 31, said she appreciated that Obama stopped by her street, but she said he hadn't completely redeemed himself for his earlier comments.

"You don't only blow money in Las Vegas, you can just as easily blow money in California at Disneyland," she said after the president's speech. Her husband lost his job on the Las Vegas Strip.

Las Vegas saw 3.3 million visitors in August, 2.8 percent more than the same month last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. But gambling revenues were down 6.7 percent for the same period in Clark County, home to the glittering Las Vegas Strip and the vast majority of Nevadans.

Michael Bonner, chairman of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, said Obama's critics read too much into his Vegas comments.

"There was a measurable impact on convention and trade business following those comments, but the intent of the president was certainly not to damage the economy here," said Bonner, who has donated to Democratic and Republican candidates in recent years.

List, the former Republican governor, said Republicans plan to remind voters at every opportunity that Obama slammed the industry that influences the livelihoods of most Nevadans.

"A lot of people out of work won't forget it any time soon," List said.

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