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HENDERSON, Nev.— Wayne Allyn Root is your typical Vegas oddsmaker turned vice-presidential candidate. Root grew up wanting to be Jimmy the Greek, and he built a sports-handicapping empire by talking fast and selling himself. When he's playing the part of Bob Barr's running mate, the pitch is pretty much the same: Root looks at America and sees a potential client. Like a guy who lost everything making dumb bets on football games, the United States has done everything wrong, gotten itself into a huge hole, and needs professional help. Root thinks he's just the guy to patch things up, but his prescription will have to wait. Dallas is at Arizona, a "Game of the Year" for Root (the term is relative; there are 12 to 15 Games of the Year each season), and he's desperate for the Cardinals to cover the spread.
Add Wayne Allyn Root to Nevada's claims to fame: the perennial fastest-growing state in the nation, the only place in America with legalized brothels, and now home to the only candidate for national office who runs a sports book on the side. (Or is it the other way around?) And in 2008, if it goes from red to blue, Nevada could legitimately claim to have tipped the election to Barack Obama.
To get a sense of the state mood, I could have gone on a statewide listening tour with stops in Las Vegas, Reno, Carson City, Elko, and Pahrump. But with gas prices what they are these days, I decided it would be more prudent to confine my reporting to a single block. Anthem Country Club is an upmarket gated community in the Las Vegas Valley—mountain views, a waterfall or two, the Strip's sparkling lights a mere 20 minutes away. Past the security guards is a pair of houses abutting a circular drive. Behind Door No. 1 is the Libertarian Party's vice-presidential nominee. Behind Door No. 2: Nevada's foreclosure king.
A former stalwart Republican with the glory wall to prove it—hello there, Karl Rove!—Root now peddles "conservative libertarianism." In April, he's releasing a Goldwaterian manifesto called The Conscience of a Libertarian. The theme of Root's campaign is to turn America into one big Nevada—a freedom-loving stronghold with no state income tax and a government that doesn't care if you gamble, smoke a joint, or pay for sex.
In 2004, the rest of the states might've signed off on that live-and-let-live plan. It seemed to be working for Nevada, with housing prices and gambling revenues soaring and unemployment an afterthought. Today, however, Root might have trouble getting people in Nevada to buy into his idea, much less the rest of the country. Tourism is on the wane, causing Strip casino revenues to fall for eight straight months and companies like Harrah's Entertainment to make big layoffs. Unemployment is now up to 7.3 percent, the state's highest in 23 years. With credit hard to come by, home builders and Vegas moguls have halted new projects. Nowhere has the housing bust been felt as acutely: Nevada has owned America's highest foreclosure rate for 20 straight months, and according to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors, home prices in Southern Nevada have gone down 31 percent since last September.
Which brings us to Root's next-door neighbor. Michael Krein is the owner of Nevada Real Estate Services and the president of the National REO Brokers Association, a trade group for brokers who manage and maintain real-estate-owned properties—that is, foreclosures. "Most real estate agents are not equipped either financially, mentally, or with the right skill set for this business," he says. Krein explains that the hassles and stresses of the foreclosure business are mostly mundane (though he does admit to being shot at twice and stabbed once): paying the utility bills, getting the pool cleaned, dealing with homeowners' associations.
In the last few years, Krein has had a lot of properties to maintain. Speculation in the Las Vegas market, he says, pushed home prices beyond the reach of the average people who live and work there. The bad news in Vegas is that foreclosed properties are everywhere. That's also the good news: Krein says there's never been a better time to buy a house (he is a Realtor, after all), so long as you have good credit and money for a down payment.
While many Nevadans seem to be heeding his advice—September home sales in Vegas were up 181 percent over the deader-than-dead September 2007 market—a lot more are sitting tight, uncertain about the economy and their jobs. Still, as Root tells it—and the Census Bureau would agree—Nevada must be doing something right because its 2.9 percent growth rate led the nation in 2007.
Each year, Root says, scads of newcomers pack up for Nevada, seeking refuge from the tax burden of the "People's Republic of California." These IRS-hating émigrés behave completely irrationally, he argues: "They're bringing the social ideas and the political ideas that made their life a living hell in California, and they're starting to vote Democrat." Nevertheless, back when the economy was going strong, Bush beat Kerry here by 21,500 votes. And that was no surprise: Save for two Ross Perot-aided victories by Bill Clinton, Nevada had gone with the Republican every year since 1968. But in the last four years, the state has indeed turned blue. There were 4,500 more registered Republicans than Democrats in 2004; as of Oct. 17, there are around 112,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Nevada.
Silver State Democrats, while perhaps aided by a quiet annexation by Golden State liberals, clearly derived the most benefit from an early caucus date (the brainchild of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid). The close contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama goosed party registrations and enthusiasm— 117,599 Democrats turned out for the 2008 caucus compared with a piddling 9,000 in 2004. David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, says that while the caucus was a split decision, "You sort of had Hillary controlling the Democratic establishment. What impressed me about [Obama] at the time is that he put together an entire precinct-level organization with no help." (Obama did get the endorsement of the powerful Culinary Workers Union, whose 60,000 members work predominately on the Las Vegas Strip.)
Meanwhile, John McCain punted the state's Republican caucuses, coming in third to Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. With McCain getting a late start, even Republicans agree that the GOP has been outhustled this election cycle. Chuck Muth, a former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party with a mordant sense of humor, is unwilling to say that the state party is disorganized. "You'd have to find it first," he says. Muth says the base isn't excited about McCain—"they're not walking door to door, they're not making donations, they're not making phone calls"—and that, unlike the Bush campaign in 2004, McCain simply doesn't have enough money to foster a big grass-roots push. (McCain now has nine offices in the state and around 30 paid staffers, compared with 15 and more than 100 for the Obama campaign.)
But even as Obama has inched out to a lead here, all is not lost for the GOP. Kerry lost by more than 40,000 votes in Nevada's rural counties, and while Obama has made a strong effort to tighten that gap—he's visited sparsely populated Elko County three times—it seems unlikely that he'll make huge inroads with the state's gun-loving conservatives. Heavily Democratic Clark County will also be a test for the Obama campaign's ground game—with casino employees working odd hours and many Latino voters going to the polls for the first time, turning out the vote will be a challenge. (Good news for the Dems: According to the New York Times, "Information from counties representing more than 90 percent of Nevada's population show Democrats … holding a commanding advantage in early voter turnout.")
There's also the Palin push to contend with. On Tuesday, the veep nominee drew big crowds to rallies in Reno and Henderson. According to Wayne Root, the Palin airlift is a conscious effort by the Republican Party to counteract his influence. "They picked Sarah Palin, I believe, because they said this guy has a shtick, this guy has an image—Wayne Root—that works, let's go find something like it. And Sarah Palin is a female version of my image." (For Root's extended soliloquy on the similarities—and fundamental difference—between himself and Sarah Palin, click
And Root may not be wrong. In a Zogby poll conducted just before Palin was chosen as McCain's running mate, the Barr-Root ticket had 10 percent of the vote in Libertarian-friendly Nevada—not far off the number that Ron Paul pulled in the GOP caucus. (Paul isn't on the ballot in Nevada for the general election, and after a dispute with Barr, he's thrown his support to Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party.) In Zogby's latest four-way poll, conducted Oct. 9 to 13, Barr is down to 1.2 percent, below Ralph Nader's 1.6 percent and "someone else" at 2.7. What gives? "When [Palin] joined the ticket, conservatives came flooding home," explains Zogby's Fritz Wenzel. "They are now showing some discontent over McCain's handling of the financial bailout and are again leaving, but they are now going to Obama, not Barr."
Wayne Allyn Root the oddsmaker pegs McCain as a 13-to-12 favorite in Nevada, though he does give the Libertarian ticket a "less than 50-50" shot of becoming a Ross Perot-like spoiler. If Obama wins the state, he says, "it will be because Bob Barr and I got between 6 and 10 percent." Root's future plans: "In 2012, I expect to be the [Libertarian] nominee. ... With my personality, which is bigger than life, I will attract five to 10 million votes in a Ross Perot-like number. And then in 2016, I will be a credible candidate for president of the United States. And in 2020, I'll win it." He also plans to continue picking NFL winners, which could perhaps lead to the happy outcome of the Super Bowl becoming a national day of rest.
Who is Michael Krein going to vote for? While he calls himself "a staunch conservative, bordering on social Darwinism," he says that he'll probably make more money if Obama is elected. "You increase taxes, you're going to affect jobs; you affect jobs, you create more foreclosures. Sorry, that's how life works." Is that reason enough to vote for Obama? Krein's not saying. He does say, however, that he's not necessarily rooting for more foreclosures. "At this point," he says, "I've got plenty."