Obama opens ninth Nevada office, Democratic voter registration climbs

President Barack Obama's re-election campaign on Tuesday opened its ninth office in Nevada and touted Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen's endorsement as state Democrats celebrated an election year voter registration drive that left Republicans in the dust last month.

Democrats added 2,544 registered voters in March, or nearly three times the 954 for Republicans, according to the Nevada secretary of state's office. The bump boosted the Democrats' advantage over Republicans to 48,654 registered voters statewide out of a total of more than 1 million.

"Every time we open an office, the energy is high, and we get great volunteers," said Aoife McCarthy, the Nevada press secretary for Obama's campaign. "We're just getting more aggressive."

The Nevada Republican Party, in contrast, is in turmoil and transition after Amy Tarkanian resigned as chairwoman following the Feb. 4 GOP presidential caucus to help run husband Danny Tarkanian's congressional campaign. The state GOP is scheduled to vote for a new chairman on April 22, installing its third leader since last year.

The ability of the two main political parties to register voters and organize volunteers in the battleground state will help determine whether Obama wins a second term in November. It also will affect close Nevada races up and down the ticket, including for U.S. Senate and four congressional seats.

Four years ago, the Nevada Democratic Party registered 100,000 new voters to help Obama easily win the state. In 2010, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., won re-election thanks to the Democratic voter advantage and a growing Hispanic vote.

Looking to level the playing field, the Republican National Committee plans in May to open a "victory office" in Clark County, where three-quarters of Nevada's population lives. It will hire a state director and a Hispanic outreach director , a GOP official said Tuesday.

"The RNC is poised to dedicate significant resources to Nevada so we have a good chance to win come November," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because things remain in the planning stages. "We're prepared to do everything we can to win. We realize Nevada is a critical state."

GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has a Las Vegas campaign headquarters and an office in Reno but probably would expand his operation if he wins the Republican nomination.

The Obama campaign has maintained offices in Nevada and has grown to nine for 2012, including four in Las Vegas, one in North Las Vegas, two in Henderson and two in Reno.

Obama himself has lavished attention on the state, visiting nine times since he became president in January 2009, including last month.

Still suffering economically, Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 12.3 percent and the highest home foreclosure rate.

Henderson Mayor Hafen, a Democrat, said he is promoting Obama because the president has helped cities like his get through hard times.

Nevada's second-largest city got $10.6 million in stimulus funds, for example, which created 186 jobs and saved another 91, Hafen said. And the city got $7.1 million from a "neighborhood stabilization" fund to address home foreclosures, Hafen added.

"He's been very accessible and very friendly to cities and towns across the nation," Hafen said of Obama.

The mayor has met Obama four times, including when Hafen and his wife were invited to visit the White House over the Christmas holidays and when the president came to Henderson.

Although Henderson is a largely conservative area of Southern Nevada, Democratic voters dominate Clark County. Republicans have a big advantage in most of rural Nevada. Washoe County in Northern Nevada remains a battleground with the GOP gaining ground.

David Gallagher, executive director of the Nevada GOP, noted Republicans registered more voters than Democrats in Washoe in March and now have a 3,808 voter advantage in the "swing county."

"Republicans have been leading in registration in Washoe County for the past 22 months," Gallagher said, although he acknowledged Obama's visits to Clark County have given him an edge.

Nevada's growing number of nonpartisan swing voters will be key to deciding the closest races. In March, 2,046 non-partisan voters registered, bringing the statewide total to 175,992, according to the secretary of state's office.

In all, Democrats account for about 41 percent of the Nevada electorate compared with 37 percent Republicans and 16 percent nonpartisan. The remainder are registered with third parties.

The U.S. Senate race between U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., is an example of the influence of nonpartisan voters, according to a new poll.

Heller is leading Berkley 46 percent to 43 percent, according to a survey released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling of 553 Nevada voters from Thursday through Sunday.

The pollster attributed Heller's narrow advantage, in part, to having the "upper hand with independents, leading 52-39." Heller also is seen more favorably than Berkley, the poll showed.

The survey showed 43 percent of Nevada voters approve of Heller and 36 percent disapprove. For Berkley, 33 percent have a positive opinion, and 40 percent a negative one, the poll found.

"Berkley, perhaps more than any other Democratic Senate candidate in the country, may be relying on Obama's coattails to win election," the pollster said, adding Obama remains strong in Nevada.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.