LAS VEGAS — In Nevada, people could once buy homes and feed their families with money earned from free-spending tourists who flocked to Sin City for relaxed gambling and liquor laws.
But things have changed dramatically in the four years since the White House race last came to this state.
Now, Nevadans are struggling with the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the nation, their woes creating a dour landscape as Republican candidates compete for votes ahead of Saturday's GOP caucuses.
"Unemployment is such a big problem here. It affects everybody," said Josh Dobbins, a Las Vegas accountant and a father of four.
A Republican, Dobbins isn't certain that President Barack Obama is to blame for the joblessness and frustration that pervades Nevada. But he is fed up with an economy that has reduced his suburban home on the desert's edge to a liability. Only four years after he bought it, it's worth $80,000 less than he paid for it.
It's a story that echoes across the mountains, plateaus and deserts of this battleground state. And this single-minded focus on the economy is sure to dominate the general election in November, when Obama will have to defend his job-creation policies against the eventual GOP nominee in a state where Democrats barely outnumber Republicans and independents decide elections.
Nationally, the unemployment rate dropped last month to 8.3. But in Nevada, there has been little improvement after a record economic bust that saw bustling construction sites abandoned and master-planned communities overtaken by foreclosures. The unemployment rate was 12.6 in December, compared with 8.7 when Obama won the state in 2008.
"This is a very tough time for the people of Nevada," GOP front-runner Mitt Romney said while campaigning in Las Vegas on Thursday. So tough, in fact, that the former Massachusetts governor used the state as a backdrop to unveil his jobs plan last year. He did it in North Las Vegas, where one in every 82 homes is in foreclosure, the highest rate in the state.
Just south of there, the swank cocktail bars, high-roller gambling lounges and glittering casino towers along the Las Vegas Strip have long belied Nevada's economic misery.
The tourism and construction industries that once employed most of the state's workers collapsed along with the global economy in 2008. While visitors have slowly begun to return to Las Vegas, they aren't spending as much as they did before the recession. Meanwhile, Nevada's construction industry continued to shed jobs in 2011. More than half of the construction jobs that employed hundreds of thousands in 2006 no longer exist. Home values are still dropping and commercial building permits have ground to a halt.
"We are moving out of the slump we've been in, but it's going to be bumpy," said Bob Potts, an economic researcher with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Now what we are waiting for is jobs."
Romney and his opponents — Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — all have emphasized their economic plans as they campaign ahead of Saturday's contest.
Erik Huey, 40, of Las Vegas, lost his full-time job in August as a website journalist. He also lost his health insurance. He calls himself tired of state leaders calling for economic diversity but taking no action.
"This isn't a Republican problem. This isn't a Democrat problem," he said. "We just need to figure out how to get the jobs here."
Jennifer Clark couldn't agree more. She lost her job as the secretary for a construction company two years ago and has struggled to find another. "Like everyone," she said, "I am just looking for a good job that will feed my family and let us be comfortable."
And her situation is affecting her outlook on the presidential race. She voted for Obama in 2008, but this year she is keeping her options open, saying: "I don't feel good about politics at all ... I don't see a lot of solutions."
Others are more optimistic about Nevada's future.
"I've seen more places where there are help-wanted signs, where a year ago there were none," said Rudy Zamora, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas student who wants to become a lawyer. He lives with his parents for now but hopes that he and his friends will find jobs when they graduate.
Republican Bill Brady, the owner of a prominent janitorial supply company in Las Vegas, said he has seen his business improve in recent months as tourists returning to the Las Vegas Strip have hotels ordering more clean linen.
Still, the mood across Nevada remains down.
"So many people are out of work," said Brady, a Romney supporter. "It causes a lot of pain and concern. There is a lot of suffering all around."