Like conventioneers, presidential candidates blew through Las Vegas in search of the big score—not at the gaming tables, but in Nevada's presidential caucuses. As the candidates worked the crowds, they heard vivid stories of the human cost of the country's reckless bet on real estate. One of America's fastest-growing metro areas, Las Vegas is now also the leader in mortgage foreclosures. A city built on faith in luck suddenly feels a little scared, as the dream of cheap loans for homes vanishes for the hotel employees who make up the aspiring middle class. "The economy overshadows everything," says D. Taylor, who runs the city's 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union. "It's the issue."
Who has the right cards to deal with it? Among Republicans, Mitt Romney proves his business savvy every time he dips into the pile of cash he made in the corporate world. He had a golden touch (but less so as governor of Massachusetts, where growth numbers were not impressive). As governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee produced good figures in a poor, rural state, but his advocacy of a national sales tax is problematic—probably the wrong idea at a time when consumer confidence is so low. John McCain can argue that he opposed some of President Bush's tax cuts, but might not be eager to do so when many think that putting more money in the hands of consumers is the priority.
On the Democratic side, if life (and campaigns) were fair, the political beneficiary would be former senator John Edwards. From the beginning, he has had the tightest focus on those struggling to make ends meet and offered the earliest and most sweeping plan to meet the home-mortgage crisis: a seven-year moratorium on rate increases and a new, court-enforceable mandate that lenders make a "good-faith effort" to redo onerous loans. But being first in politics rarely pays off. Having failed to win in must-win Iowa, he's struggled for attention.
Another "It's the economy, stupid" election would seem to benefit Hillary Clinton more than Barack Obama. He certainly knows how the other half lives; he was a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. He has unveiled an economic-rescue plan that focuses on pumping cash into the economy through a tax rebate and a government fund to help mortgage borrowers. But his claim to the presidency isn't based on economic know-how; it's based on his prescience in opposing the war in Iraq and a bring-us-together tone of reconciliation. Iraq is less visible now, and Democratic voters may be eager to hear more accusatory rhetoric about banks, hedge funds and Republican regulators.
Hillary has copied much of the Edwards plan, shortening the rate freeze from seven years to five. More important, she can claim to have absorbed a feel for how to deal with tough economic times by watching how her husband worked out of a recession and into the Long Boom of the '90s. But she's leery of relying on nostalgia, realizing that elections are always about the future. "You're not going to see TV ads about the 1990s," says one of her top aides, who didn't want to be named discussing strategy. To do so would require bringing Bill back to center stage. That's a gamble that Hillary isn't willing to take.