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Frank Morreale stands behind the glass counter and pats his holstered pistol - a Smith & Wesson .38 special. He likes it because it's light and it hangs on his belt the way a cell phone might - both unobtrusive and useful.

He also likes it because it's a gun. See, Morreale likes all kinds of guns. Big ones, small ones, long ones and short ones. Rifles and pistols. Ones with recoil and ones that won't move your hand but a whisper when fired.

"We live in Nevada," he said. "We like to shoot things."

Like what?

"Anything that moves."

There's a smile behind the moustache, and a slight edge in his voice. In the background, Rush Limbaugh's voice seeps out from a small, unseen radio. Morreale's wife sits on a stool while a customer on the other side of the glass counter grips a handgun, feeling the weight and balance of it in his hand. His head nods in approval.

Marion Morreale rolls her eyes a bit - but not convincingly. In their store, The Gun Trader ("Nevada's Friendliest Gun Store"), the conversation shifts from guns to politics faster than, well, a speeding bullet. On this day, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled favorably for the Second Amendment. Earlier in the week, Republican presidential candidate John McCain was down south in Las Vegas trying to woo voters in this state of flux.

The Gun Trader owner shakes his head and is not feeling particularly happy about either event. He thinks the Supreme Court didn't go far enough to offer Second Amendment protections - even though President Bush applauded the decision. And McCain? Well, ask Morreale how the Arizona senator stacks up to his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, and he scoffs without hesitation.

"One's a Democrat and the other is a Communist," he said.

He is not kidding.

And the 59-year-old also said he is not kidding when he says that, for the first time in his life, he will not cast a vote for either candidate in the November election. He'll vote down the ticket - he likes some of the conservative candidates running in local races - but he can't abide McCain. And he dislikes Obama intensely.

His wife, however, thinks she'll reluctantly pull the lever for McCain come crunch time.

McCain will need her vote in November and, if she can somehow coax her husband out of thinking the Republican nominee is not, in fact, a Democrat in disguise, McCain needs his vote, too. But now Morreale's not biting.

Democrats get traction

Nevada is a battleground state. A swing state. A purple state. On the roulette wheel this year, it's like the green double zero - neither red nor black. And while the Las Vegas area is likely going to fall to Obama in November based on recent polling data and the city's strong union ties, Reno - "The Biggest Little City in the World" - and the county in which it lies won't be such a sure thing.

Located in the northern part of Nevada, conservative Washoe County hasn't historically cared much for Democrats. They're viewed with suspicion - always wanting to strip away the individual's rights. Many residents here pretty much adhere to libertarian philosophies. After all, this is a state where both gambling and prostitution are legal. People cling to their right to operate free from government interference - and they're not that fond of receiving outside opinions or advice.

So independent are they that McCain came in third in the Nevada caucus - behind winner Mitt Romney and Libertarian hero Ron Paul.

There are 87,264 active registered Republicans in Washoe County compared with 80,558 Democrats. Nonpartisan voters number 28,264.

But the trend has recently favored Democrats. While President Bush's approval ratings hover around 30 percent, Washoe County Democrats are registering people to their party at a blistering pace - at a ratio of 4-to-1 over Republicans since Feburary and the city of Reno now has more registered Democrats than Republicans. And the state is currently home to one of the right wing's favorite lightning rods - Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate majority leader.

"In general, the issues are health care, quality of education, the Democratic grab bag of issues," said Dave Damore, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Those are the reasons the Democrats are getting far more traction here than earlier in the decade."

In 2004, the state barely went to President Bush over Sen. John Kerry, 51 percent to 48 percent. Nevada's past is a deep shade of red - going with the Republican nominee for president in eight of the last 10 elections. President Clinton was the exception in 1992 and 1996. Washoe County virtually mirrored the Bush-Kerry results, 51 percent to 47 percent.

This year, change appears to be in the air, and Obama's campaign believes it can make an impact in Reno given the current economic pressures.

After all, even those with libertarian leanings have to buy gas.

Money matters

It used to be the casinos could count on people spending most of their time sitting in front of slot machines or at blackjack tables. The lure of riches and the reality of free flowing drinks kept them digging back into their pockets for a shot at early retirement.

But with the rough economy, gaming revenues aren't what they used to be. Compared with last year, profits are down at Reno casinos by 6.5 percent to $224 million.

Which means Bill Hughes has to figure out how to keep people coming into the Peppermill Casino.

Hughes is the director of marketing for the Peppermill, a landmark known for its bright colors inside and rainbow-colored marquee out front. He said the business is casting a wider net, hoping to snare vacationers, as well as gamblers. His casino - which uses the word resort in its name now - is adding on new rooms, spas and restaurants to make it more of a vacation destination.

The casinos are also doing more than watching the presidential campaign. This year, three key ownership groups in Reno - MGM, Harrah's and Boyd Gaming - all gave slightly more than half of their political contributions to the Democrats. The sense is McCain didn't help himself in the state by supporting legislation that would've curtailed betting on college sports.

Despite all that, there is no doubt gambling is still a linchpin for the economy and casinos like the Peppermill are reliant on people like Jeff Hunt and Leslie Sommerfeld.

The couple, playing Pai-Gow, are from Northern California - a key base for the casino's clientele. They used to drive to Reno 10 to 12 times a year, but with fuel prices up to $4 a gallon, they've cut back to four times a year.

Hughes said the Peppermill hasn't gotten caught up in the gas-card giveaway craze that is becoming more popular in Reno - though he doesn't rule it out. Even brothels are offering gas cards now when services - as they are politely called - are purchased.

He's not sure how the presidential election will change the current climate and is a little cagey about who he'd support personally.

"I think in bad economic times, people look to government and see what is happening and decide they want a change," he said. "I think that's the nature of the American public."

And based on the casinos political giving this year, it appears that they're betting that way.

A church forged by civil rights

During the day, the casinos dominating the Reno skyline look as if they're suffering from a hangover after a hard night of partying.

It's Sunday morning and, while the city shakes off Saturday's revelry, about 50 folks at Bethel AME Church in neighboring Sparks are already starting in with the hymns - the choir swaying and leading the congregation in rhythmic hand-clapping.

At the podium, Michele Robinson closes her eyes.

"Father God, you blessed us last night and we forgot to say thank you," she said as light from a stained-glass window refracted on her hair. "You kept us even when we don't deserve to be kept."

In the choir, Patrick Robinson's lips mouth the words, "Amen."

This is a historic church with its foundation originally set in Reno and firmly forged through the trials of the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s. The congregants either directly or indirectly have experienced racism in a county where only 2.4 percent of the population is black. Martin Luther King Jr. isn't just a historical figure here, he's a template for their lives.

And when Darryl Odom begins his sermon on faith and doubt, Patrick Robinson is struck by both the spiritual and political implications - the latter tied directly to Obama's run for the presidency.

"I thought it might happen when I was 60 or 70," Robinson said. "Not now."

He's a 38-year-old Washoe County sheriff's deputy who supported President Bush in 2000. But by 2004, Robinson soured on Bush and voted for Kerry. This time around, he was with Hillary Clinton - until Bill Clinton made his comments about race after the South Carolina primary.

Now it seems inimaginable to him that he had ever supported anyone but Obama. After the service, he stood near the choir box and leaned on the pew. Around him, church members put hymnals away and turned off lights. His voice was soft.

He said he's seen the direct results of the flagging economy as a sheriff's deputy. He said he's been responding to more crimes related to fuel theft and vandalism of foreclosed homes. Something needs to change. Fast.

But he has worries about Obama - some of the same worries blacks had when Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The pressure of being first. The pressure of having to do it right the first time for those that might come after. The stakes are high.

"Martin Luther King was a great man," Robinson said. "But when he was living, there were a lot of trials and tribulations he had to go through to become the man we know now after his death. He (Barack Obama) will be under a lot of pressure. He will be under the microscope and he'll go through that 'It's lonely at the top' type of thing."

Robinson said his mother, who lives in Seattle but grew up in the South, still isn't convinced the country will elect a black man. But then his thoughts turn to his 6-year-old daughter, Patrese. If Obama wins, Robinson said he knows where they will both be Jan. 20, 2009.

"That day would be history in the making. Just history. I need to be there. And my daughter would need to be there," Robinson said. "Whatever it takes, we will be there."

Mortgage crisis hits hard

Just before dusk, the cars and trucks are stuck on the streets - a trail of brake lights slowly making their way to the annual Reno Rodeo. Their route takes them past an area of middle- to lower-middle-class homes - single level units mostly built in the '50s.

Patty Chastain knows the area well. For the past six years since moving from San Jose, she's been immersed in the real estate market. This year has been the worst she's ever seen.

It got so bad for her that she shifted her career from selling people's homes to working for the bank to evict them. The process, she said, takes its toll on her.

"I cry almost every day," she said.

Nevada has been a leader in home foreclosures for almost a year. The economic downturn left many with adjustable mortgages and sub-prime loans faced with monthly payments beyond what they could afford.

Chastain said many of those who got into the market were speculators, but some were just families who finally saw the American dream of home ownership within their grasp. But the lending practices, she said, were shady and dishonest.

It's crippling the economy, and it was so bad that Obama came to host a town hall meeting in Reno before the Nevada caucus in January to discuss the issue. Chastain got to meet him. She is now going to vote for him.

"I think he understands that people are hurting and that it's a big issue," she said. "He gets what's happening."

What is happening is represented by the house where Chastain is standing. What was once grass is now brown and crunches beneath her feet. Tall weeds fill up a side yard. On the windows are signs noting the home is in foreclosure and is now bank property. On a street corner nearby, another bank-owned home cooks in the summer heat. These scenes are not unique.

When she opens the door, it looks like people left in midlife. The kitchen's counter had plates and bowls on it, and the cabinets are filled with food. Some pictures hang on the wall.

"A lot of times they just leave stuff behind," Chastain said in a weary voice. "We'll have to arrange for it to all be removed."

It's eerie. The garage has a trash can filled with children's books and games. In the corner is a child's bicycle. Chastain inspects the rest of the house. What looks like a little girl's bedroom is empty except for a pile of cosmetics and trinkets. Letters stuck on the bedroom door offer a clue about who slept here: Maireny.

This was home to the Medina family. Chastain has no idea where they went. Like most foreclosures, once the bank is involved, it's hard to keep track of people. Her involvement ends when she offers cash for keys. That offer - to get the homeowners to sign the paperwork turning the home over to the lender - can range between $500 and $1,800. Chastain has to get a paper signed later in the day - a man who lived in his home for 16 years and was scrambling to find a place to rent for him and his son.

Chastian said she has no idea how her life got to this point. She moved from expensive San Jose and settled in Reno with her daughter about six years ago. The plan was to buy 40 acres and start a goat farm.

They bought the 40 acres a few years ago. But no goats. The economy was already heading south by then.

"The plan is dead and dead," she said. "And I didn't even really want to raise goats. My daughter did."

But what really haunts her is a young, married couple about to have a baby. They were in love with a 900 square-foot home with two bedrooms and a bath. First-time buyers excited by the prospect of owning a place of their own.

Chastain knew they were overextending. She knew they got a sub-prime loan. Even though she knew better, Chastain had gone to the lender to make the case for them. The lender said yes.

Four months later, the monthly payment climbed and the family was forced out. She thinks they're in Louisiana now.

"I'm very ashamed I did that," Chastain said. "I still think about them and wonder how they're doing."

A GOP rebellion

The Grand Sierra Casino sits off Interstate 80 - a massive parking lot and what looks like a man-made lake just beyond the tower of rooms. It's early in the morning, but one of the main ballrooms is bristling with eager, yet agitated Republicans.

They are about to kick off what is being billed as the insurgent convention - a continuation of the Republicans' state convention that got cut short when Ron Paul delegates almost overtook it. The state convention was hastily brought to a recess and was supposed to resume in late July.

But Wayne Tehune didn't want any part of that. In his mind, the real Republican Party was gathering at the Grand Sierra this morning.

A woman handing out business cards with the image of a zombie-like McCain saying "Heeeere's Johnny" and titled "The Straight Jacket Express" complained that the Republicans don't really have a presidential nominee this year. Another guy wearing a "Don't Gavel Me, Bro" black T-shirt said the party had lost its way.

Tehune, a trim mild-mannered dentist from Sparks, said he was trying to restore order to the state's Republican party. With a receding hairline and dressed in a suit, he barely looks revolutionary. But those in the ballroom talk of him in reverent tones.

The more than 300 delegates began their work right away by tossing out the state convention chair and appointing their own. They plan to send their own delegates to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. They plan to raise hell.

Christine Vetterli, 33, was sitting in the back with her 4-month-old and her husband. She was at the Republican State Convention in April and believes the party is trying to shove McCain down their throats.

She's choking.

"I know what I'm not going to do in November," she said. "I'm not supporting McCain."

But Obama can't get her, either. She is looking at Libertarian candidate Bob Barr. For her, the vote isn't about her - it's about her son Patrick.

"You can't concede your values just because one person looks like they might be the winner," she said. "At some point, you have to stand for principles, and maybe it won't change in my lifetime, but it will in my son's lifetime."

Those principles are smaller government, lower taxes, fixing a broken health care system and balancing the federal budget. She has no confidence in McCain to do any of those things. Vetterli, who runs an online ski business, looks at her son and wishes for better choices.

"Maybe in 50 years," she said.

Meanwhile, the Nevada's GOP's official convention did not reconvene. Instead, the state party's 12-member executive board simply appointed 34 delegates and 31 alternates - all presumed McCain supporters - to the Sept. 1-4 national convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Democrats and guns

McCain has been to Reno twice already this year, as has Obama. Washoe County Democrats believe their candidate needs only to split the vote here to win the state's five electoral votes. Clark County, they think, is where he can dominate - provided Democrats down there turn out in huge numbers.

But if the Democrats succeed in turning the state blue in November, gun trader Morreale figures to come out ahead anyway.

He said in his 16 years running his shop, one thing has proven true in every election cycle; if it looks like a Democrat is going to take office, gun sales shoot up.

"Every time," he said. "When Hillary Clinton announced she was running, I was swamped. Guns were flying off the shelf."

Morreale, however, remained steadfast to his pledge. No Obama. No McCain.

No way. No how.

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/aug/05/betting-the-west-nevada/
 
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