Maria Gray, left, holds up a magazine as President Obama speaks during a… (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images )
RENO — If there's anywhere President Obama should be deep in a hole, it's here in Nevada, which has been flattened by the Great Recession like few other places.
The state suffers the highest unemployment rate in the country and for many months led the nation in home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies as well.
But with just over six weeks left until the election, the president holds a small but steady lead in this Western battleground, thanks in part to voters like Yvonne Bellaart.
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No, she says, shaking her blond pageboy, she's not better off now than four years ago — the question Mitt Romney has made a centerpiece of his campaign.
Bellaart lost her retail accounting job when the economy tanked and, at age 58, has searched more than three years in vain to find another full-time position. Yet after supporting John McCain over Obama in 2008 and backing Republican George W. Bush before that, Bellaart is voting against the GOP nominee this time because she considers Romney hostile to women.
"I don't think it's a government's choice what women should do," said Bellaart, a political independent, referring to Romney's opposition to abortion rights and his vow to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Although she is personally against abortion, Bellaart asked, "Why do we need to go back 40, 50 years? Are we going to go back to women can't vote, too?"
The economy and its lackluster performance is the overriding issue this election: Countless polls and other voter surveys have made that abundantly clear. But for many there is no straight line from disappointment on that front to a vote for Romney or, conversely, any assurance that those feeling better off are ready to support Obama.
Jason Winters, 36, runs a high-end Italian restaurant and, although he wishes business were brisker, he has weathered the last few difficult years and even bought a nicer home, thanks to record-low interest rates. "It's not that Obama's been terrible," Winters said. Even so, as a Republican, he plans to vote for Romney.
The economy remains a big concern in Nevada. At 12.1%, joblessness is 4 percentage points higher than the national rate. And, while there are incipient signs of a housing recovery, with foreclosures down and even some improvement in home values, experts say it may be decades before the state's devastated real estate market and construction industry fully mend.
Still, more than three dozen random interviews with residents across the Reno area — the swing portion of a swing state — found that some things mattered more than dollars and cents to people weighing their votes.
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Party loyalty was a big factor, a thumb on the scale for Obama as aggressive organizing efforts and a feeble GOP have given Democrats a voter-registration advantage of more than 60,000 statewide. (For perspective, there were about 1 million votes cast in the presidential race in Nevada in 2008.)
Democrats like Felicia Koha, 33, praised Obama for tackling the tough situation he inherited. "It was years and years getting into the mess we're in," she said, walking laps around the Sparks Marina, an ambitiously named man-made lake near a troubled outdoor mall. "I would never expect it to be cleaned up in a year or two, or four even."
Republicans said Obama had been as bad, or worse, than they anticipated back in 2008. "No experience at all, no background when it came to finances," said Frank Bales, 58, who was doing laps in the opposite direction and lamented the "horrendous" debt that has grown dramatically under the president.
For those less partisan — the independent and persuadable voters who will probably decide the election — there was less inclination to blame the president for the slow recovery and little faith that any politician, Democrat or Republican, could make a huge difference right away. So other issues came up.
Kira Joseph, a third-grade teacher, and her husband, a firefighter, have both hung on to their jobs. But after pay cuts, each makes less money than they did four years ago. Are they better off? That depends, Joseph replied, heaving grocery boxes into the back of a minivan. The couple purchased a second home at a bargain price, and if they can sell their first without losing a ton of money, they'll be happy.
As for the election, Joseph, 30, is more focused on social issues — especially women's health — than the economy. She is "a super-supporter of Planned Parenthood" and also troubled by Romney's stance against abortion. "I was raised a Mormon, so I see where he's coming from," said Joseph, a political independent. "But it's completely wrong not to allow a woman to control her own body."