HENDERSON, Nev. — As President Obama holes up in a tony resort to cram for his first debate on Wednesday against Republican rival Mitt Romney, searing reminders of his biggest hurdles to re-election are just outside his door.
There’s the closed golf course yellowing at the entrance to this planned community, clashing with the palm trees and manicured lawns. Down the road are empty storefronts at a “village” of boutiques and restaurants. Surrounding the hotel where the president is huddling with advisers are scores of recently built condos and homes, each a worth a fraction of its value a few years ago.
The Obama campaign has set up its “debate camp” in something of a metaphor for the nation’s economic woes — and the president’s challenges.
Lake Las Vegas, designed as a luxurious golf destination and conjured from the dust and sagebrush 20 miles outside of Las Vegas, was once the glossy vision of ambitious — some say reckless — dreamers. Today, battered and humbled, it is trying to climb back to some semblance of its earlier self.
“It was a ghost town a couple of years ago,” said real estate agent Julie Becker, from her office on the faux cobblestone walkway that cuts through the center of Lake Las Vegas village. “But there have been great strides in trying to bring things forward.”
The comment could be borrowed from an Obama campaign ad. His hopes for winning over Henderson — the sprawling suburb east of Las Vegas that includes this development — and Nevada, as well as the other crucial swing states, may turn on whether he can sell undecided voters on that sort of optimism.
It was not surprising that the president hunkered down here for his three-day “debate camp.” Nevada is a key piece of the president’s electoral map strategy. Henderson, a sea of stucco homes, red-tile roofs and strip malls, is swing territory that the campaign views as a test case for the president’s economic message.
It’s also a place that appreciates tourism dollars — and Obama had some making up to do with tourism officials here. The president has twice incurred the wrath of the state’s Democrats and Republicans alike with comments that appeared to suggest people shouldn’t throw away money in Las Vegas. After Obama’s second comment, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the state’s Democratic senior senator, told the president to “lay off” already.
“I expect that if he visits some local shops, he’ll be spending some of his very own money in Vegas the next few days,” campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Nevada could use the cash, especially southern Nevada, which drives the state’s grim statistics. Four years after the housing bubble burst, two-thirds of the state’s homeowners owe more than their homes are worth. About one-sixth are behind on their mortgage payments. The state’s 12 percent unemployment rate is highest in the nation.
“We’re still looking at an elongated recovery cycle that will likely span beyond 2012 and further,” said Brian Gordon, an economic analyst with Applied Analysis, a Las Vegas firm. “I’d say we’ll have several years of continued challenges and only modest improvements.”
Lake Las Vegas is a microcosm of where Nevada is on its road back.
Obama is staying in the newly refurbished Westin Lake Las Vegas, which, like a lot of places in the community, has been recently born again. It was once a Loews resort, but it defaulted on a loan and was rebranded. The Ritz Carlton down the road, which filed for bankruptcy in 2008, was closed for most of a year but has reopened under new management and with a new name. There is a casino here too, which reopened last year after being idle for 14 months during the worst of the recession.
Only one of the three 18-hole championship golf courses that once gave the lake a surreal green halo is open. The other two, frying in the desert sun, closed after their operator filed for bankruptcy in 2008. That was about the time a pipe underneath the man-made lake burst, resulting in expensive repairs and fear that the jewel of the community could drain like a bathtub — a sort of insult-to-injury moment that made the news.
But all that is in the past, community boosters say; Lake Las Vegas has turned a corner. A private equity group run by John Paulson, who became a billionaire by betting on a steep decline in the housing market, recently bought more than 500 acres of residential land. (The purchase adds another odd coincidence to the presidential race: Romney once led a private equity firm.)
“It’s really exciting,” said Vicky Crichton, a Lake Las Vegas resident and another real estate agent at the Windermere Prestige Properties office in the village. “I think we hit bottom two years ago.”
Both women see reason to hope, but they part ways when it comes to the presidential race.
Becker said she’s leaning toward Obama: “It’s like we’re in a boat and halfway across the water. Do you want to jump out and get in another boat or stay the course? With what he’s had to deal with, I think he’s earned another four years.”
Crichton is starting to think it’s time for a change and blames the president for not moving the economic recovery along faster. “Democrats had control of Congress for the first two years. They could have done anything they wanted, and it didn’t happen,” she said.
Both women say they haven’t made up their minds. They’re waiting, they said, for the debate.