RENO, Nev. (AP) — Nevada enters Election Day in a familiar position: a high-stakes battleground state and national bellwether for the presidential race.

President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney have poured tens of millions of dollars into Nevada to blanket the airwaves with ads in pursuit of the state’s coveted electoral votes that could settle the presidency. On top of that, Nevada has a Senate race that could determine the balance of power in Washington.

Obama won by a surprising 12 percentage points in 2008, but has had a harder time shaking Romney in the key swing state that has been battered by high unemployment and foreclosures.

Some polls showed Obama with a slight lead but most were within, or barely outside, the margin of error in a state that has historically been a litmus test for presidential politics. Nevada has picked 24 out of 25 presidential victors in the past 100 years — the lone exception occurring in 1976 when the state chose a losing President Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter.

Obama was hoping signs of economic recovery combined with state party resources Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has marshaled in recent years would propel him to Nevada’s six electoral votes on the way to re-election.

Romney was counting on a less enthusiastic turnout in the heavily Democratic, union-dominated Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County and a better showing by Republicans in Reno’s Washoe County, which traditionally has been a GOP stronghold but went blue four years ago for the first time since Lyndon Johnson won in 1964.

Obama defeated Republican John McCain by 123,000 votes in Clark County — a 19-point margin in the county that makes up two-thirds of Nevada’s active registered voters. He won by 23,000 votes, or 12.6 points in Washoe County, which has about one-fifth of the voters. McCain dominated the rest of the state — mostly rural areas.

But in the four years since Nevada’s tourism-dependent economy has taken a hit as hard as any. Two years ago, Reid had to fight off a stiff challenge to his re-election to a sixth term and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval was elected with two-thirds of the vote.

The state’s north-south, urban-rural split is also a driving force in a nasty Senate race pitting Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas against incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Carson City. Heller, a former congressman in Nevada’s most rural district, was a midterm appointment to the seat after GOP Sen. John Ensign resigned in a sex scandal.

Nevadans also were voting in four congressional races as well as a host of state legislative races that could determine whether Democrats continue their 26-16 majority in the state Assembly and slim 11-10 edge in the Senate.

With Romney and Heller both Mormons, religion had the potential to play a role as Nevada’s Mormon population (about 6 percent) trails only Utah and Idaho per capita. Obama is Protestant and Berkley is Jewish.

More significant, the one in four Nevadans who now identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino played a huge role in helping elect the nation’s first African-American president. Among the 15 percent of Nevada voters who identified themselves as “Hispanic/Latino” in 2008, more than three-fourths voted for Obama.

Obama also carried 59 percent of the women and two-thirds of the youngest voting group, age 18 to 29.

More than half the ballots were cast early, and the candidates had no shortage of visits to Nevada to court voters. Obama, Romney and their vice presidential candidates made dozens of trips to the state, and Nevada had among the most TV campaign ads in the nation.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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