Culinary worker Santos Garcia, left, talks with resident Mario Romo last… (Isaac Brekken, McClatchy-Tribune )
LAS VEGAS — In the parking lot of a worn mini-mall, Paul Rodriguez, the comedian, dished out anti-Obama jokes under a hot desert sun. He was surrounded by the kinds of small businesses he said make America hum — a taqueria, a beauty salon, a tax accountant — as he coaxed Republicans to vote.
Blocks away, Democrats served up tacos under a park gazebo and a teen mariachi band led a parade of Latino voters to a nearby polling place. "Buenas tardes!" said Shelley Berkley, the seven-term Democratic congresswoman who hopes to become the state's first female senator, as she greeted voters.
The important role the Latino electorate will play in the U.S. Senate race here was in evidence on the first day of early voting in this half-mile stretch of the state's largest city. Nearly 1 in 6 Nevada voters is Latino, and they could tip the surprisingly close contest in this swing state — as well as control of the Senate.
The race between Berkley and Dean Heller, the incumbent Republican, was not expected to be the nail-biter it has become. The Las Vegas congresswoman is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for her role in protecting a troubled kidney center in which her husband, a physician, had a financial stake.
But civic scandals are relative in Nevada. And Heller, who was appointed to the Senate two years ago after Republican Sen. John Ensign resigned amid a sex and lobbying investigation, has been unable to shake his opponent.
Berkley has remained competitive, though slightly behind, because the Democratic machine in Nevada, orchestrated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has churned out a 130,000-voter registration advantage.
Winning is not just about securing independent or undecided voters; it's also about getting base voters to the polls. With early voting underway, members of the powerful — and heavily Latino — unions on the Strip have been walking the precincts daily, trying to convince voters to check off Berkley's name when they vote for President Obama.
"These are the housekeepers, kitchen workers and porters that will change the landscape of the election," said Yvanna Cancela, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Union, as she sent 100 workers on a Sunday afternoon get-out-the-vote effort.
Republicans acknowledge the power of the Reid machine, but say their outreach to Latino voters is more intense than ever. Volunteers from Utah and California have arrived to walk precincts, and the coordinated Team Nevada effort with Mitt Romney's campaign opened a Latino outreach office on Las Vegas' east side.
Republicans argue that Latinos share the same worries as other Nevadans in their struggling economy, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate, and will side with them on pocketbook issues.
"You've got many Democrats who believe they can win the Hispanic vote only on immigration," said Ryan Erwin, a veteran GOP strategist in the state and a Romney advisor. "That is a mistake."
At times, the Senate race in Nevada can seem like a one-sided affair, with Berkley engaged in a very visual campaign for early votes — she rallied with the actress Eva Longoria one day and attended three church services on a Sunday morning with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon.
The daughter of a hotel waiter who earned her way through college and law school as a cocktail waitress and Keno runner, Berkley's penchant for hot pink makes her a fashionista fixture of Sin City, even if her New York accent belies her family roots. She doles out custom-made "Berkley for Senate" lip balm on the campaign trail.
As a cosponsor in Congress of the Dream Act, which would allow young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they attend college or join the military, Berkley's voting record stands in contrast to Heller's; he opposed the bill when he was in the House.
"I just want to keep Shelley Berkley on," said Miriam Servin, a mother of three who works for the school district. "She supports the Hispanics — she supports the Dream Act — and that's something big."
But in the rural mining and ranching communities of northern Nevada, where towns announce themselves with Western fonts, Heller appeals to those who see themselves as distinct from their southern neighbors.
"She's like a fish out of water when she comes up here," said Kristen Evans, a native of Fallon who runs the Top Gun car wash with her husband and welcomed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for a campaign stop in support of Republicans last week.
Heller's low-key campaign and TV-ready looks have carried him far in an election cycle that, in another state, might require a more grueling output.
Strategists believe Heller's early ads on Spanish-language television have helped him maintain a stronger lead among Latinos than Romney. One ad includes Heller's wife, Lynne, speaking in halting Spanish; another shows Heller strolling alongside the state's popular Latino governor, Republican Brian Sandoval.
On the first day of early voting, Heller was knocking on doors in his northern Nevada stronghold. The son of an auto mechanic who inherited his father's interest in stock car racing, Heller aims to win every rural county to make up for any losses in Las Vegas.