Republicans' economic ideas may not sell in hard-hit Nevada


Conservatives have long lauded the free-market spirit of this dusty, mountainous state, where there is no income tax and even some Democrats rail against big government. The location of the iconic Las Vegas Strip? Determined by a hotel owner who built outside city limits to skirt municipal taxes.

Yet as the GOP hopefuls fan out across Nevada in advance of Saturday's presidential caucuses, they may find that their economic prescriptions fall flat with all but their base. Nevada's frontier economic style didn't spare it from being kneecapped by the recession, creating a new political reality in a key swing state.

In foreclosure-plagued Florida, where Mitt Romney drubbed the competition Tuesday, the candidates did little more than vow to slash taxes and shrink government. By contrast, many prominent Nevada Republicans support homeowner assistance programs, mostly sparing them from the sort of attacks that await the presidential field.

A liberal group here launched a website called "Foreclose Romney," fueled by a comment he made last year to the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board: "Don't try and stop the foreclosure process; let it run its course and hit the bottom." One post, titled "What Mitt Romney's economic plan looks like," shows a stalled development.

If the eventual nominee fails to pay heed to voters' economic concerns, observers said, he could tip some states to President Obama, who recently proposed a multibillion-dollar refinancing program for people current on their mortgage payments. There is arguably no better proving ground than Nevada, where Obama crushedSen. John McCain in 2008.

"If the Republicans' only plan is 'no taxes, fewer regulations,' that's a tough thing to sell in Nevada," said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno. "We've tried all that."

For decades, Nevada relied on people feeling flush enough to blow cash: some on luxury suites and roulette, others on ever-larger stucco homes. Then the national economy cratered. Nevada now leads the nation in unemployment and foreclosures, and the Strip is pocked with skeletons of hotels that started construction in the go-go years.

Many southern Nevada communities now resemble Green Valley, a slice of suburban Henderson with a decidedly unfinished feel. Smoothed-over hillsides suggest developments planned, then scrapped, and at one stoplight, someone swapped a sign advertising new homes for one touting the "Ron Paul Revolution."

Tony and Lori Martin recently stopped by the District, an upscale shopping center riddled with empty storefronts. The couple works at Lowe's, where they have an up-close view of the state's economic anxiety. "Why pay $200 for a sink if the bank's going to take your house?" Tony Martin said.

Martin, 41, voted for McCain, but didn't really mind when Obama won. "I kind of bought into change and hope, and I feel kicked in the teeth," he said.

His wife, Lori, 51, was uncertain whether she would support Obama again. "I haven't heard anything better or worse from any of the Republicans," she said, "though they're not really saying anything at all right now."

Most economists here say the Republican approach wouldn't do much to help the Silver State. Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the state was desperate for infrastructure spending to revive the moribund construction industry and a lifeline for homeowners underwater on their mortgages.

"What the candidates say in other states seems abstract here," he said. "We have a lean government. Size of government is not the problem."

State Republicans have mostly adopted this view, scrambling to distance themselves from Romney's comments about letting the housing market heal itself. Last year, Romney supporter Joe Heck of Nevada was the sole House Republican to vote against defunding a program intended to help underwater homeowners. Gov. Brian Sandoval, whom Romney mentioned in a recent debate as a potential Cabinet pick, has repeatedly praised a foreclosure-mediation program created by legislative Democrats.

"While letting the market hit bottom may be the best solution for taxpayers, that might not go over well with independent voters," said Nevada GOP consultant Robert Uithoven. "At the same time, Nevada voters have seen a significant amount of government intervention, and no one can say that's worked in this state."

In 2010, Republican Sharron Angle tried to make that case in her hard-fought race against Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. Angle was a particularly clumsy messenger, calling the unemployed "spoiled" and saying the federal government had no role in creating jobs. Reid successfully painted her as hard-hearted, and won an election that many expected him to lose.

To win Democratic-leaning Nevada in the fall, Republicans will have to more successfully sell their economic vision to swing voters like Lillian Eversole, another shopper at the District.

Eversole, 57, is like many voters here: pragmatic and somewhat cynical. In 2008, she voted for Obama, though she preferred Hillary Rodham Clinton. "She would have cracked that Congress with a whip," Eversole said while smoking outside Panera Bread.

A real estate agent, Eversole lambasted Obama over his continuation of the bank bailouts. But the Republicans haven't impressed her, either, with their small-government talk.

"Those aren't solutions. That's political rhetoric," she scoffed.

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