LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney are battling more than just each other in diverse and politically divided Nevada.
The president also is fighting against Nevada's dismal economy while Romney faces a better-organized and better-funded state Democratic Party machine with a victorious track record.
Those factors are leveling the playing field here, and Obama and Romney head into the summer seemingly locked in a close race in a state that both sides expect will be fiercely contested – and a true toss-up – throughout the fall.
Both are making Nevada and its six Electoral College votes a priority in their state-by-state strategies as they look to amass the 270 votes needed to win the White House.
Obama was making his second trip to the state in less than a month on Thursday, with a Las Vegas event aimed at wooing young, college-aged voters. Romney was just in the city a week ago for a fundraiser with Donald Trump. So far, at least $5.6 million in TV ads has been spent in the state, with Obama and his Democratic allies spending roughly $1.2 million more than Republican outside groups. Romney, himself, has yet to go on the air.
Nevada's outcome is all but certain to come down to a huge swath of independent and undecided voters here, many of whom say they'll choose the candidate with the right economic prescriptions.
"This state is so troubled, we need someone committed to fixing it, and I don't see that," says Robert Aguirre, an independent voter who said he had backed Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Clinton. Aguirre said he is confident Obama won't soon return jobs to Nevada, but he isn't convinced Romney is up for the task, either, saying: "I haven't really seen him here, I haven't heard him talk about Nevada."
Lisa Smith, a 23-year-old Democrat, has hesitations about Obama this time around.
"He has done a lot of good – the health care law, student loans," Smith said. "But we still don't have enough jobs for everyone in Nevada who is hurting,"
Indeed, here, perhaps more than in any other state, the race is shaped by the economy.
The state's 11.7 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, largely because of a tourism industry and service sector that has never rebounded from the Great Recession. And its once booming housing market has become a foreclosure wasteland, with one in every 300 homes receiving a foreclosure filing in April, according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac.
Those woes have left Obama grasping to hold on to a state he won handily in the 2008 election. So far, he has spent more than $3 million on television advertising here and has deployed a team of volunteers across the state.
Romney has had electoral success in Nevada before, too. He won the state's Republican caucus in February with more than 50 percent of the vote, four years after prevailing here during his first presidential run.
But, in Nevada like elsewhere, Romney has been slow to ramp up his general election campaign and trails the president in fundraising, campaign organization, Hispanic voter outreach and media buys. He also only recently started to hire Nevada field staff and won't open his first northern Nevada campaign offices until later this month.
For all their challenges, Obama and Romney also have opportunities in Nevada with certain demographic groups.
Obama is popular with more progressive voters in laid-back Las Vegas, and his campaign thinks it can ramp up voter turnout among Democratic-leaning Hispanics. They make up 26 percent of Nevada's population and many are immigrants from Mexico. Some have expressed reservations about the Republican Party's anti-immigration rhetoric, and that could hurt Romney.
Among them is Nevada Republican Ann Martinez, who says she likes Romney, but is troubled by what she described as his reluctance to discuss a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration law.
"We have all these people here without papers and what are we going to do with them? You can't pretend they aren't already here, working here," said Martinez, a church secretary.
The core of Romney's support in Nevada likely will be made up of conservative, tea party voters in the state's northern reaches. Tea partyers concerned about Romney's conservative credentials likely will overlook their worries and choose him because of a desire to vote Obama out of office come November.
Romney also can count on strong support from his fellow Mormons. They represent about 9 percent of Nevada's population, and reliably show up to vote, mainly for Republican candidates.
Obama's campaign insists Nevada is leaning in its favor and argues that Romney has economic challenges in the state, too. They note that Romney once said the housing crisis should be allowed to run its course. "Let it hit bottom," he said.
Beyond that, Romney also must figure out how to counter Nevada's proven Democratic get-out-the-vote machine. The state party is so good at identifying its supporters and making sure they head to the polls that Democrats managed to re-elect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010, despite his widespread unpopularity.
In contrast, Nevada's Republican Party is the picture of disorganization and rivalry.
Ron Paul supporters have succeeded in taking over the organization in recent months, hurting its ability to collect dollars from old-guard campaign donors alarmed at the Nevada GOP's constant turmoil and posing a challenge for Romney.
Still, Nevada Republicans say any challenger to an incumbent president would start off as the underdog.
"Mitt Romney was just selected as the presumptive nominee about a month ago and Obama has been running for re-election for three and a half years," said Darren Littell, a Republic National Committee spokesman who set up camp in Las Vegas this month to help get Romney elected.
While Romney has yet to run any general election ads in Nevada, several outside groups are on the air and providing cover for him.
Nevada is a true swing-voting state. It chose Clinton in 1992 and 1996, before swinging Republican in 2000 and 2004 for George W. Bush. It backed Obama in 2008. And if history is any guide, it could again choose the eventual White House victor, as it has every four years since 1980.