LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama has a Sin City problem that won't go away.
Obama is counting on Nevada's support for reelection next year. He easily won the Las Vegas Valley in 2008 and will probably win the largely Democratic, urban center again next year.
But Nevada state officials and residents of this economically ravaged state are still fuming over comments they perceived as rants against the tourism industry. Las Vegas city leaders have been feuding with him over the comments since he first made them two years ago, and Republicans are hoping that fury will point voters in their direction.
The friction has resurfaced as Obama is about to visit a Las Vegas neighborhood Monday as part of a nationwide tour to sell his jobs plan. Obama's visit comes as Republican presidential candidates, business titans and former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman continue to remind people that Obama has twice hated on Las Vegas tourism – this western swing state's largest employer. The jabs are notable because casino-dependent Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, and Obama can't afford to have voters blame him as his Republican rivals try to convince the nation that they would do a better job of turning the stalled economy around. Nevada's unemployment remained steady at 13.4 percent last month.
"He said it more than once," said former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a national Republican committeeman. "You can't un-ring the bell. You have to live with what you say. It just shows a lack of understanding of the engine that drives the state."
The feud began in 2009, when Obama admonished corporations using federal bailout money: "You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime." A year later, Obama warned families against gambling away college tuition: "You don't blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you're trying to save for college."
The call for financial responsibility didn't sit well with some Las Vegans, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Nevada all lashed back at the time. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Obama's most prominent ally in Congress and Nevada's senior senator, told Obama to "lay off Las Vegas."
Obama later clarified to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce in February 2010, "Let me set the record straight: I love Vegas...There you go. Always have. I love Vegas."
With Obama campaigning for a second term, the president's critics are eager to call the outcry to mind.
"Perception is reality," said Republican Rep. Joe Heck, who represents southern Nevada. "After those statements were made, we had conventions call and pull out, so it did in fact cost Las Vegas business."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee released a scathing web ad hitting Obama for his economic record and comments on Vegas, in addition to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), who is running for U.S. Senate in 2012.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said in Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, "And unlike President Obama, I'm glad to be in Las Vegas."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won Nevada's caucuses in 2008, pointed to Obama's Vegas statements while campaigning here last week. He reminded voters of them in a statement sent out before Obama landed in Nevada Monday.
"My guess is it did not help when he talked down Las Vegas as a convention city, did it?" Romney told dozens of supporters gathered at his campaign headquarters in Las Vegas last week.
Las Vegas saw 3.3 million visitors in August, 2.8 percent more than the same month last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. But gambling revenues were down 6.7 percent for the same period in Clark County, home to the Las Vegas Strip and the vast majority of Nevadans.
Michael Bonner, chairman of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, said Obama's critics read too much into his Vegas comments.
"There was a measurable impact on convention and trade business following those comments, but the intent of the president was certainly not to damage the economy here," said Bonner, who has donated to Democratic and Republican candidates in recent years.
List, the former Republican governor, said Republicans plan to remind voters at every opportunity that Obama slammed the industry that controls the livelihoods of most Nevadans.
"A lot of people out of work won't forget it any time soon," List said.