Minutes from the glittering pleasure domes on Las Vegas’s world-famous Strip, the US gambling mecca’s urban underbelly remains blighted by record unemployment and home foreclosures.
And despite the best attempts of Republicans – in town for a TV debate Tuesday — to woo the swing state of Nevada as election season nears, many seem to doubt politicians can make a difference.
“Right now we’re watching every penny,” said Judy Ripley, 68, emerging from a “99 Cents Only” store out towards the red mountains west of the desert city, but still in sight of the gleaming hotel-casinos nearer downtown.
“My husband says we’re upside-down in our house, and we’ve never been upside-down in our house,” she told AFP.
She was referring to the fact they owe more money to a mortgage lender than the home is worth — a fate shared by tens of thousands in Las Vegas, making it the foreclosure capital of the United States.
“I don’t think politicians are going to change anything… They say they want to, but I don’t think they can,” she added.
The thrift shop was only a mile or two from where Mitt Romney, the front-runner to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, made a brief but well-publicized appearance Monday to open a new campaign office.
The former Massachusetts governor rallied supporters with his usual mix of jibes at “cheaters like China” and pledges to bring his hands-on private-sector experience to the White House — in contrast to President Barack Obama.
“He’s a nice guy, but he just doesn’t know what it takes to get the economy working,” Romney said of the embattled president.
“You have 13.5 percent of Nevadans out of work right now, you have home values going down. The question is, do you want four more years?”
On Tuesday he and his Republican rivals were due at the Venetian, one of the hotel-casino “resorts” along the Strip, where millions of tourists flock to gamble, see the likes of Elton John and Barry Manilow, or enjoy other delights.
Experts say the debate will be watched closely, as Nevada is seen as a swing state where Republicans could take advantage of economic woes to seize it back from the Democrats, who won it for Obama four years ago.
“When you start looking at the nuts and bolts and how campaigns are won and lost, it still favors the Democratic party here,” said David Damore, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).
“The onus is definitely on the Republicans to take advantage of the macro winds that are blowing in their favor, but so far they haven’t invested a whole lot of what it’s gonna need to beat the Democrats here,” he told AFP.
To underline the stakes, Obama is set to visit Las Vegas on October 24, according to CNN.
Republicans will hold their Nevada caucus on January 14, the first of the western states, where Democrats have made major inroads in recent years.
“You look across the region, Colorado, New Mexico and even Arizona, these all used to be pretty safe Republican states, and now in the last three or four election cycles (they) lean towards the Democratic side,” Damore said.
“So this is the new swing region of the country if you will. And the Republicans who have taken it for granted are now giving it the attention it deserves.”
One person unlikely to watch Tuesday’s debate is 67-year-old Judith Waters, who moved to Las Vegas to care for her ailing mother, took over her mortgage — and was promptly threatened with foreclosure by one of the major banks.
Waters — who did not want her real name used due to embarrassment — said the bank used a technical change to totally revamp her mortgage terms, nearly doubling her $635-a-month payment.
Asked if she had faith in any of the Republicans at the Las Vegas debate, she replied: “I don’t have a lot of faith in any of the politicians.”
Back at the “99 Cents Only” store — thriving, judging by the stream of customers going through the tills — deputy manager Maelle Poascencia says the economic downturn of the last few years has been good for business.
“It affected us a lot. We have a lot of customers coming in now, and they’re buying more than they were buying before… It’s been about probably a year or so that we’ve been doing really well,” she told AFP.
Outside, Judy Ripley is worried. “I’m upset, because we’re on a limited income right now. We’ve never been that way before, we’ve always worked, and we always thought, well, we had our house, we could fall back on that.
“But we can’t do that now, if something were to happen to my husband, I couldn’t survive in that house.”