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Benjamin Spillman

Obama takes another shot at Vegas

3 February 2010

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Add people saving for college to the list of folks President Barack Obama says shouldn't spend money in Las Vegas.

On Tuesday Obama told an audience in Nashua, N.H., "You don't blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you're trying to save for college."

The crack came not quite a year after a speech in Elkhart, Ind., during which Obama aimed a similar warning at bankers whose companies received bailout money.

The New Hampshire remark not only reopened the political wound from last year, it also cut deeper by raising questions about why the president of the United States continues to use Las Vegas as an applause line in speeches about wasted money.

It also raises the stakes for Obama's visit in two weeks, when he is expected to talk about jobs.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who led the chorus of criticism last year when Obama warned against Las Vegas visits "on the taxpayers' dime," took his outrage a step further during a hastily arranged news conference at City Hall.

"An apology won't be acceptable this time," said Goodman, who changed his political affiliation from Democrat to nonpartisan in December as he pondered a bid for governor. "I want to assure you when he comes I will do everything I can to give him the boot back to Washington and to visit his failures back there."

Goodman raised his voice repeatedly while speaking with reporters, at one point saying, "This president is a real slow learner."

Goodman was one in a parade of public officials who criticized Obama, including Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is unpopular with Nevada voters and under attack from Republican critics for being too closely aligned with the political agenda of Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The Las Vegas statement was in Obama's prepared remarks and according to a White House transcript worked as an applause line: "Responsible families don't do their budgets the way the federal government does. Right? When times are tough, you tighten your belts. You don't go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage. You don't blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you're trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices. It's time your government did the same. (Applause.)"

Within hours of Obama's remark Reid fired off a statement warning Obama to "lay off Las Vegas."

Reid's statement read in part that "the President needs to lay off Las Vegas and stop making it the poster child for where people shouldn't be spending their money."

Later in the day Obama responded to Reid.

"I wasn't saying anything negative about Las Vegas," Obama's letter stated. "I was making the simple point that families use vacation dollars, not college tuition money, to have fun. There is no place better to have fun than Vegas, one of our country's great destinations."

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas, wrote to Obama and invoked the statement from last year in addition to the remark Tuesday about spending money in Las Vegas.

"And far from being wasteful, these tourist dollars represent a lifeline to the people I represent - the same people who are suffering from the nation's highest foreclosure rate and one of the highest unemployment rates," Berkley wrote. "These men and women need and deserve your assistance, not your scorn."

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said Obama's "pattern of bashing Las Vegas to make a point must stop," and Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said, "At the same time the President tells people not to come to Las Vegas, he has no problems coming to our state to raise money." Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., also slammed Obama.

Nevada Democratic political consultant Ronni Council said she doesn't think the remark will hurt Obama in Nevada.

And it might help Sen. Reid by allowing him to show Nevada voters he is willing to stand up to the president.

"This kind of separates Sen. Reid a little bit and shows he is supportive of his home state first and foremost," she said.

It's unknown whether Obama, when he visits Las Vegas about Feb. 18, will participate in any campaign events to benefit Reid, who's in a tough re-election battle.

Council also said the fact Obama mentions Las Vegas in his speeches reinforces the desert destination as a top national getaway, even if it comes with a little scolding from an authority figure.

"Every time he says something negative about us we probably get more people who want to come here," she said.

That's not how Las Vegas boosters and gambling and convention industry officials viewed Obama's first Las Vegas remark, delivered in February 2009 during a speech at a recreational vehicle factory.

"You can't take a trip to Las Vegas or down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime," Obama said in a remark aimed at bailout-accepting bankers who had been accused of cavorting in Las Vegas as their companies collapsed.

But executives from Las Vegas' biggest resort companies said the remark scared off business. The banking firm Goldman Sachs bailed out of a Las Vegas event to escape the perception of wasteful spending only to reschedule in San Francisco, a more expensive destination.