LAS VEGAS — He didn't meet with the unhappy governor. He didn't hit the slots or cruise the Strip. Still, locals were counting on President Obama to assume the role of Las Vegas' promoter in chief, touting the virtues of Sin City in an effort to ease the hard feelings he caused months ago with a slap at corporate excess.
Excess, of course, being one of this city's chief commodities.
The president, in town for an opulent fundraiser Tuesday night for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, spawned a teapot-sized tempest in Nevada earlier this year when he criticized the lavish use of federal bailout funds by high-rolling executives. "You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime," Obama said in Indiana as he campaigned for his economic stimulus plan amid a wave of populist anger.
Las Vegas' voluble mayor, Oscar Goodman, demanded an apology, suggesting the remark would scare off visitors and undermine Nevada's No. 1 industry. Obama ignored him and the controversy died down until last week, when Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons learned that Obama was refusing his request for a sit-down session. Gibbons said Obama's remark had cost the state tens of millions of dollars in convention and related business -- a sum that could not be independently verified.
The White House invited Gibbons to join well-wishers greeting Obama at the Las Vegas airport, but the governor declined.
"I am not interested in a handshake and a hello from President Obama," Gibbons said in a statement released Monday. "I am interested in an apology and plan to undo the damage the president did."
Goodman, for his part, received a telephone call from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who reportedly assured his fellow Democrat that the president would make amends. "Once that happens, everything is great," said Jace Radke, a spokesman for Goodman. (The mayor was among those who showed at the airport.)
Obama carried Nevada in November by a surprising 12-point margin after campaigning more aggressively here than any Democrat in years. Political strategists hope to secure the state and much of the West as part of Obama's political base and Reid, Nevada's senior Democratic senator, is key to that effort. First, however, Reid must get reelected in 2010.
He has a history of exceedingly close races and hopes to fortify himself by raising $25 million, an extravagant sum by Nevada standards. Tuesday night's affair at Caesars Palace, featuring Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow, was expected to pull in close to $2 million. Republicans have yet to field a top-flight challenger, despite Reid's poor standing in polls.
"He fights for the dreams of the people here in Nevada and he fights for the people all across America," Obama said Tuesday night. ". . . As long as I am president, I want him to be my Senate majority leader."
The president didn't address the Las Vegas controversy Tuesday night but will have another chance today. He and Reid plan a joint appearance at nearby Nellis Air Force Base to mark the 100th day since passage of Obama's economic recovery plan. Tonight, he is set to headline a Beverly Hilton Hotel fundraiser with hopes of collecting more than $3 million for the Democratic National Committee.