POLITICAL EYE: Romney, Obama ride roller coaster

Inside a "Team Nevada" office last week, a largely Republican audience gathered with great anticipation for the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

Balancing disposable plates on their laps, the Romney backers sat on folding chairs and tucked into meals of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, baked beans and salad with bread on the side.

The Summerlin office was so crowded, that some of the 150 or so people had to stand.

They knew that the first debate could be a do-or-die moment for Romney, who has been running behind Obama in the polls in Nevada and other key battleground states that will likely decide the Nov. 6 election.

Romney did prevail and Obama died a little on the debate stage, even the president’s own campaign acknowledged.

After watching the debate, Yolanta Soysa of Las Vegas was moved to tears by Romney’s performance. She said she lost her job in real estate during the recession and she blames Obama for not doing enough to bring back the crashing economy he inherited. At age 68, the Republican plans to vote for the first time this year and for Romney.

"I lost my job. I lost my car. I lost my life," Soysa said. "I was never political before this. I was so happy with Romney in the debate. He looked like a president and Obama gave the same empty talk."

Ryan Priest, a registered nonpartisan, brought his wife, Isabel, to the debate watch party. He said it was first political event he had ever attended. He said he came away more impressed with Romney, although he had already planned to vote for the Republican because he agrees with his conservative fiscal and social views.

Priest is a member of the same religion as Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons in Nevada are heavily Republican and are encouraged to vote as part of their community involvement, he said.

"I think Romney out-debated Obama," Priest said. "He showed more confidence and Obama was a little slow."

The Obama campaign also held dozens of debate watch parties across Nevada last Wednesday.

The next day, loyal Democrats defended Obama’s performance and said he would do better during the next two debates, scheduled for Oct. 16 in New York and Oct. 22 in Florida. Early voting begins in Nevada on Oct. 20.

"I think the president held his own," said state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said Obama addressed the issues Nevadans care about most, including Medicare and health care. He defended his signature piece of legislation as protecting the middle class.

"He focused on the issues important to the state of Nevada," Berkley said when asked if he won or lost.

How well Obama does in Nevada will affect Berkley’s close Senate race against U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

Just two days after the negative round of Obama debate headlines, the president had some good news to crow about. The national unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent, under 8 percent for the first time since he took office in January 2009. Nevada still has the highest jobless rate in the nation at 12.1 percent, but Obama welcomed the positive news even as Romney said the rate of job creation wasn’t good enough for a "real recovery."

"We are moving forward again," Obama said Friday at a rally in Cleveland, Ohio, another key battleground state the president needs to win a second term. "Today’s news should give us some encouragement."

Expect more of this sort of political roller-coaster ride with Election Day only four weeks away.

– Laura Myers

PLAYING THE SAD CARD

When you find yourself in a hole, don’t keep digging; hoist yourself out with a sad story about a family member instead.

That’s how two leading candidates in the race for Nevada’s newly created 4th Congressional District sought to sidestep questions in a recent debate on the TV show "Ralston Reports."

Democrat Steven Horsford and Republican Danny Tarkanian spent the better part of the 20-minute debate name-calling, interrupting moderator Jon Ralston and talking back at each other.

Despite their differences, each candidate came armed with sad family anecdotes to use when the going got tough.

Horsford used a story about the years his grandmother spent in a nursing home to fend off Ralston’s demands he back up an attack ad that claims Tarkanian wants to "end Medicare."

"Step back, Jon. This is about people," Horsford said before segueing to the 27 years his grandmother spent in a nursing home. "I think about my grandmother and other seniors, our parents and our grandmothers, grandparents like them who have no other choice but to rely on Medicare."

Horsford didn’t directly answer the question about how Tarkanian’s support for a voucher option to pay for Medicare services is the same as ending the program, as the attack ad states.

The closest he came was to say Republicans "want to turn it into a voucher program" and "that is wrong, it is extreme."

Not to be outdone, when Tarkanian was being pressed for a straight answer on whether he supports the controversial budget plan of vice presidential nominee U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., he instead turned to a story about his father, iconic UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, who happened to be in the studio.

"My father who has had two major surgeries these past two years would not be around probably if we did not have Medicare," Tarkanian said.

While Tarkanian was willing to call Ryan’s Medicare vision "a great start," he wouldn’t completely jump on board, ultimately conceding, "I don’t know all the details of how it is going to be funded and how it is all going to be implemented."

– Benjamin Spillman

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter. Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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