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Las Vegas still fumes over 2-year-old Obama remark

CORRECTS YEAR - President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. CORRECTS YEAR - President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
By Cristina Silva
Associated Press / October 24, 2011

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LAS VEGAS—President Barack Obama has a Sin City problem that won't go away.

Obama is counting on Nevada's support for re-election next year. He easily won the Las Vegas Valley in 2008 and will probably win the largely Democratic, urban center again next year.

But some Nevada state officials and residents of this economically ravaged state have been fuming over comments they perceived as rants against the tourism industry since he first made them two years ago, and Republicans are hoping that fury will point voters in their direction.

The friction resurfaced as Obama visited a Las Vegas neighborhood Monday as part of a nationwide tour to sell his jobs plan. The stop came as Republican presidential candidates, business titans and former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman maintain that Obama has twice disparaged 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."

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."

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.

Obama tried to make amends Monday during a fundraiser with business leaders at the Bellagio casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

"I love coming to Vegas," he said. "The only people who love coming more is my staff. I would not be surprised if some of them missed the plane accidentally."

But the president did not allude to the tensions when he later spoke on a residential street in Las Vegas. In all, he spent only three hours in Nevada Monday.

Amanda Hulsizer, 31, said she appreciated that Obama stopped by her street, but she said he hadn't completely redeemed himself for his earlier comments.

"You don't only blow money in Las Vegas, you can just as easily blow money in California at Disneyland," she said after the president's speech. Her husband lost his job on the Las Vegas Strip.

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 glittering 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 influences the livelihoods of most Nevadans.

"A lot of people out of work won't forget it any time soon," List said.