Pundits and prognosticators have long opined about President Obama's built-in advantages in Nevada, where he captured more than 55 percent of the vote in 2008. And with good reason.
Democrats have a commanding voter registration lead, including among Latinos, and Obama's on-the-ground effort is fueled by the 55,000-member Culinary Union and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid's formidable state party organization.
But despite those hurdles, and polls that continue to give Obama a small but persistent edge, Republican Mitt Romney's Nevada forces say they are convinced they can fight above their weight class, and that the Silver State — crucial to Romney's narrow path to the White House — is still in play.
"We've got a shot," Chris Carr, Romney's state manager, said recently at the campaign's bustling headquarters on the affluent far west side of Las Vegas.
"People are trying to write Gov. Romney's obituary in Nevada," Carr said, "but there are legitimate pathways to victory for him here."
Underestimate us at your peril, Romney's Nevada forces say, with a bravado that may belie their circumstances — but it's not as if either campaign has concluded that Nevada is a done deal.
To underscore its continuing importance, Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, held a rally that attracted about 6,000 supporters in Las Vegas on Tuesday afternoon; Romney was scheduled to be back in the state on Wednesday, as was Obama.
Opportunity, But Narrow
It is true that the scrappy and engaging Carr, a Louisiana native who ran campaigns there before putting down political and personal roots in Las Vegas, has assembled a better GOP campaign effort than has been seen here in a good while.
And he's done it without a state Republican Party organization, which largely disintegrated after the Clark County GOP, which includes Las Vegas, was taken over by Ron Paul loyalists.
Operating a campaign effort under the banner of "Team Nevada," and with direct funding and staffing help from the Republican National Committee, the Romney organizers say their get-out-the-vote ground game — including a Latino outreach effort — is as big if not bigger than anything the party's ever had.
The absence of a functioning state party organization has added to their challenge, they say, but in some ways, Team Nevada's independence has allowed a more nimble organization. In many respects, Nevada, and particularly the recession-humbled Las Vegas area, should provide fertile ground for Romney's message that the economy has continued to suffer under Obama.
The state's unemployment rate remains the highest in the nation at 11.8 percent, down from a peak of 14 percent in October 2010; and its foreclosure rate, which was the worst in the nation for 62 consecutive months until March, now is fifth highest.
Though the housing market is rebounding and unemployment is edging down, there are still an estimated 160,000-plus Nevadans looking for work, and many shuttered storefronts waiting for better times.
Jillian Batchelor, a Las Vegas Realtor who voted for Obama in 2008, says she plans to mark her ballot for Romney this election, despite improvements she has seen in the real estate market, where prices are slowly improving and inventory is low, in part because of new rules that have slowed foreclosures.
"Jobs are still pretty hard to come by," she said. "It just couldn't hurt to get someone new in there."
But the anti-Romney headwinds remain fierce, his opportunity slender, and Democrats know it, carrying with them more than a bit of swagger while armed with data like this: Early in-person voting began Saturday, and as of Wednesday morning, 13 percent of Nevadans had already voted. Of those, 48 percent of the votes cast, or just over 60,000, were by registered Democrats; 35.3 percent, or just over 44,000, were by registered Republicans; and 16.4 percent, 20,500, were by those with no or "other" party affiliation.
Democrats and Republicans had submitted almost exactly the same number of absentee and mail-in ballots statewide, according to data released late Tuesday by Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller.
In Clark County, where 851,803 of the state's 1.25 million voters reside, 10.5 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by Tuesday, including 46,416 Democrats, 28,321 Republicans, and 15,064 who weren't registered with either party.
"More people are going to vote early this cycle than in 2008," Obama national campaign manager Jim Messina said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. "Every single day now is Election Day."
The Obama early voting game plan? It's all about getting out less reliable, or "sporadic" Obama voters before Election Day, Messina said, when they can count on party stalwarts to show up.
The retort from Romney workers in Nevada? They don't have to work as hard to get their registered voters out, especially on Election Day.
Democratic Machine: Reid Plus Unions
At an Obama campaign Las Vegas field office recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told a group of Latino volunteers that he was feeling confident about the president's chances.
"Obama's ahead by 6 in Nevada right now," Reid said, quoting Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. A day later, Mellman, who also serves as Reid's pollster, released a survey putting Obama's lead at 8 points.
Nobody, Reid asserts, knows how to poll Nevada better than Mellman. (The RealClearPolitics Nevada poll average has Obama leading by 3.4 points.)
And no organization knows how to mount a get-out-the-vote effort like the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, in Las Vegas.
"We're not reinventing the wheel," says Yvanna Cancela, the local's political director and head of its 2012 GOTV operation. "We're just very good at what we do."
Since late summer, 72 union members have been on leave from their hotel and casino jobs, paid by the union to work in teams and make a personal contact with every union member in Clark County. Not just homes of the bartenders, housekeepers and food service workers in the Culinary Union, but also the electricians, truck drivers and trades people in other labor organizations.
On a recent morning at union headquarters, in the shadow of the soaring Stratosphere Casino and Hotel, Cancela gave her usual morning pep talk, and volunteers gathered in teams at tables to map out their daily canvassing strategy.
Dallany Santos, 33, who works at the D Hotel, and Emilia Cabrera, 59, for 14 years a housekeeper at the Excalibur hotel and casino, headed out together to the sun-blasted neighborhoods North Las Vegas. (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a GOP up-and-comer, grew up in this part of the city, and has been back to campaign for Romney.)
After nearly two months of canvassing, their lists have shrunk to the truly difficult to contact, though the women say they keep coming back — three, sometimes four times to leave fliers and attempt a personal contact before crossing a name off their list.
"We're trying to be an example for people, for how you have to sacrifice to get what you what, what you need, and not just for yourself, but for others," said Santos, who like Cabrera is an immigrant.
Later, they joke about casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is spending millions on Romney's effort.
"He gives millions in dollars," says Santos. "We give millions in enthusiasm."
Money Good, Organization Better, New Voters Best
Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have focused on Latino voters in key swing states including Nevada, with advertisements in Spanish (including one in which Obama speaks in Spanish), and community meetings seeking to draw in the critical demographic.
Romney's organization has four Hispanic outreach workers in Nevada, three in the Las Vegas area, one in the north state swing district of Washoe County that includes Reno. The effort is unprecedented for Nevada Republicans, says Romney state spokesman Mason Harrison.
At an Obama field office in heavily Hispanic East Las Vegas, supporter Adriana Ortiz, 37, said she became involved in the campaign because her younger sister is a "Dreamer" — an illegal immigrant brought to the U.S. by her parents as a child.
"I was a Dreamer, too, when I came to this country," says Ortiz, a married mother of two who operates a trucking company with her husband. A citizen now, she supports Obama, she says, because of "what he's done for Dreamers."
Obama supports DREAM Act legislation that would allow young people brought to the country illegally as children to remain in the U.S. with a path to citizenship if they meet certain criteria, including having a clean record, graduating from high school or serving in the military.
In the absence of legislation, he issued a directive that would stop the deportation of young people who would qualify to remain in the country under the provisions outlined in the proposed DREAM Act.
Voters like Ortiz are a key to the race in Nevada. A Latino Decisions poll from earlier this month showed Obama leading Romney 78 percent to 17 percent among Latino registered voters.
Latinos make up about 27 percent of the state's population, according to U.S. Census estimates from 2011, up from 19.7 percent in 2000.
The Romney campaign also is counting on big support from rural Nevada voters, and Mormons. But there aren't a whole lot of people in rural Nevada; and Romney's fellow Mormons make up about 7 percent of the state's population.
But although outmanned (the Obama campaign has more than twice as many state offices) and outgunned on the ground, Romney's people have deployed their own canvassers, and continue to promise a close race despite the odds.