LAS VEGAS — Look no further than the epicenter of the nation's housing worries – where "for sale" signs dot neighborhoods just off the glittering Las Vegas Strip – to see how Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are pitching themselves to voters beleaguered by the economy.
Perhaps more than any others, Nevada voters are witnessing the wide gulf between two competing economic visions – Obama's belief that government must step in when the economy fails and Romney's tough-love adherence to market forces as the answer.
The candidate more Nevada voters agree with – and trust – could end up with the edge in their state and other political battlegrounds hit hard by the economy, such as Florida and Michigan. That candidate also could be strongly positioned ahead of a November election dominated by the sluggish recovery from a recession the housing crisis caused.
Whether the government should intervene or let the market dictate the pace of recovery confounds many in Nevada, and there's little wonder why: The state leads the nation in unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosures. And voters seem just as far apart on this solution as the candidates are themselves.
"I couldn't imagine us being able to get out of this cycle if we didn't have that helping hand," said Nelson Araujo, an Obama supporter who runs a consumer credit counseling agency.
Fearing the worst is still ahead, Las Vegas real estate agent Phil Perrine seems to share Romney's position as he counters, "It's important that the government help us by not helping us."
Just three months before the election, polls show a close contest in Nevada and nationally. The state offers six Electoral College votes in a race in which 270 are required to win.
Beyond their economic pitches, Obama is working to boost turnout among a booming Hispanic voting bloc that leans Democratic. Romney sees opportunity in the state's vast rural areas and pockets of frustrated swing voters in the Democratic-leaning Las Vegas area. Both candidates made stops last month in swing-voting Reno, a nod to the state's heavy veteran population.
Obama has the organizational advantage, with a still-active network that helped him carry Nevada four years ago. He's also getting help from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. And Democrats have an edge in voter registration.
However, there are warning signs for Obama. He and his allies have spent $9 million in the state largely to criticize Romney, yet polls show it's still close. Romney and Republican backers, in turn, have spent $12 million on ads mostly bashing Obama.
The race is likely to turn on the economy and, specifically, housing. Two-thirds of Las Vegas homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. After decades of job and housing growth, casino revenues fell in 2007, setting off a chain reaction of layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies in the state. Unemployment shot up to 14.9 percent in 2010, overtaking Michigan for the highest in the country. After declining gradually, joblessness stalled at 11.6 percent in June, still the nation's worst.
Along Interstate 15 just south of the Las Vegas Strip, a local real estate agent's sign interrupts the electronic billboards promoting casino shows for Donny and Marie Osmond, Garth Brooks and Celine Dion: "Upside down in your home? We can help."
"For sale" signs and boarded-up windows lurk behind neat rows of stucco walls surrounding residential neighborhoods, from the modest homes of north Las Vegas to the luxurious developments near the Spring Mountains to the west.
This was the backdrop last fall, too, when Romney warned in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun that federal intervention was forestalling the worst of the housing crisis.
"Don't try and stop the foreclosure process," he said in October 2011. "Let it run its course and hit the bottom. Allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up. And let it turn around and come back up."
Since then, Obama supporters have seized on the comment to argue that the former Massachusetts governor, who spent decades as a private equity firm executive, is out of touch.
"To hear someone say, `Let it hit rock bottom'? The `it' is people," said Patricia Spearman, a pastor in North Las Vegas.
In July, the political arm of the Service Employees International Union aired a television advertisement in Spanish that included video of Romney making the foreclosure statement. The group purchased $4 million in advertising time to air the spot throughout the summer in three states: Colorado, Florida and Nevada.
Last year, Obama announced in Nevada a plan aimed at easing restrictions to help homeowners who were current in their mortgages but owed more than the property was worth. It was a revision of a $75 million program Obama announced in 2009, again in Nevada, aimed at stemming foreclosures for millions of Americans behind in their mortgages. The original program fell far short of its goal.
Perrine, whose real estate agency has struggled, is among those who agree with Romney when he says that Obama has artificially buoyed the housing market.
"There's a huge shadow inventory of homes sitting back there that at some point is going to be dumped on the market," continuing the downward trend in property values, said Perrine, who supports Romney.
While Romney takes heat for his "hit the bottom" comment, he's jumping on Obama's recent comment that "If you've got a business, you didn't build that." And that line of attack may be resonating in spite of widespread criticism that Romney and others have taken Obama's remark out of context.
Phil Randazzo, a local businessman who insures small-scale employers, said he was outraged. He blames federal intervention for holding back investors and stalling Las Vegas' comeback. Since 2007, the number of employees his company insures has dropped 40 percent.
"I don't think the guy's evil or anything," Randazzo said of Obama. "I just think he has no clue what he's doing and he's way in over his head trying to solve this economy."
Conversely, Ron Nelsen, who sells and installs garage doors, insists that two rounds of federal housing assistance are yielding rewards. Says the Obama backer, "I'm off to my best quarter - dare I say profitable - since 2007, and it's because of the risk this president took in helping Nevada stay afloat."