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A chance to kiss, make up in Vegas

When President Obama visits Las Vegas this week for the first time since he turned this swing state blue, civic leaders will be yearning for an all-out embrace of Sin City.

In recent months, Las Vegas’ unemployment rate has soared to 10.4% as revenue from the gambling industry and visitation numbers have plummeted. In February, the president made an offhand remark that appeared to link Las Vegas to corporate excess, and officials blamed it for a wave of convention cancellations.

The city has been smarting ever since.

The mayor wrung weeks of press coverage out of demanding an apology. Nevada’s Republican governor, claiming the comment cost Las Vegas $100 million, has repeatedly bashed the president.

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Jeff Voyles, a gambling industry consultant who teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said, “Maybe he didn’t understand his comment was kind of flippant, but it had a tremendous impact on our economy.”

Voyles views Obama’s visit as a potential rift-mender -- and the television coverage as free advertising for the Strip.

“I can’t imagine us not all shaking hands, hugging each other and saying let’s get our economy back on track,” he said.

Obama’s appearance Tuesday at Caesars Palace is as chief fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow are scheduled to perform.

In a poll published by the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Tuesday, 45% of respondents said they would vote to oust Reid. The Democrat faces reelection in 2010.

On Wednesday, Obama is scheduled to visit Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas to tout the federal economic stimulus package before heading to Los Angeles.

“Sen. Reid is glad the president is making his 21st visit to Nevada -- at Sen. Reid’s request -- and staying overnight to discuss the economic recovery act,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers said Saturday in an e-mail.

The business-travel brouhaha began after Obama aimed comments at firms that had pocketed bailout money.

“You can’t get corporate jets, you can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime,” Obama had said.

Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs, which received $10 billion in taxpayer funds, was among the companies that canceled trips soon after. The reaction among tourism officials was so passionate -- and continued for so long -- that some wondered whether it had drawn more attention to the idea of Las Vegas as a poor destination for meetings.

Just this month, Mayor Oscar Goodman talked of getting Obama to “do the right thing” and champion Las Vegas.

Gov. Jim Gibbons took swipes at the president when Obama declined his offer to discuss the state’s economy.

But in a possible sign that wounds are healing, tourism officials have recently shifted their attention from defending Las Vegas’ honor to again promoting that “what happens here, stays here.”

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ashley.powers@latimes.com


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