LAS VEGAS (USA TODAY) - Bertha Beltran is just a high school sophomore but she is entrenched in a massive voter-turnout operation that could determine who wins the presidency next month.
Under a blazing desert sun on a recent Saturday, Beltran, 15, and two other Spanish-speaking teens intercept shoppers heading into La Bonita, a supermarket in a working-class neighborhood far east of Las Vegas' glittering casinos. It's the last day to register to vote by mail, and the trio of President Obama's supporters is pushing to sign up Latino voters, who make up more than a quarter of the state's population and could give Obama a crucial edge Nov. 6.
Elizabeth Ortiz, 27, registered a week earlier at another supermarket and plans to back Obama. Beltran encourages her to add her name, e-mail address and cellphone number to an early-voting pledge form - information Obama's campaign will use to encourage the stay-at-home mom to show up at the polls.
"I can't vote yet, but this is my way of getting involved," says Beltran, who registers three voters and collects 10 pledges in a little more than an hour.
The scene is repeated across the city in a single day - at supermarkets, shopping malls and at the House of Blues on the Las Vegas Strip, where rocker and Obama backer Jon Bon Jovi performs a free concert to promote early voting.
Across town, nearly a dozen Mitt Romney volunteers work the phones, trying to unearth new supporters and encourage them to vote early. Every time a new Romney backer is found, the volunteer rings a bell and the room bursts into applause.
Nevada has just 2.7 million residents and only six of the 270 electoral votes needed to win presidency. But Obama, Romney and their allies are fighting hard for each vote in a state that has sided with the White House victor in every election since 1980.
"When you are in a presidential race potentially decided by one or two electoral votes, six is a lot," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report. "This election could come down to one state."
Obama spent three days in the state preparing for the first presidential debate. Romney has visited six times. Former president Bill Clinton stumped for Obama in Las Vegas this month, and Vice President Biden was in Reno on Wednesday.
Celebrities pop up, too. Grey's Anatomy star Jesse Williams makes a surprise visit to an Obama campaign office one morning to rally volunteers. He was filming in neighboring California until 2 a.m. and hopped a flight at 5 a.m., he told USA TODAY. "I try to get to battleground states whenever I can."
The state also offers a test of the candidates' ability to recruit volunteers, register voters and get them to the polls in an election so close that turnout could well determine the winner. Obama, who won Nevada by a landslide four years ago, has held a narrow lead in recent polls - as his campaign capitalized on his early fundraising advantage to build a substantial ground organization in the state. The president swamped the GOP nominee on the airwaves by more than 2 to 1 between April 1 and the first week of September, according to SMG/Delta, a Republican media-buying firm.
Romney has ramped up his TV advertising in the state, and last week outspent Obama in Nevada, according to National Journal.
Obama also has opened 27 offices in the state to Romney's 12. Obama's campaign has tapped into an experienced Democratic political operation that helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid win easy re-election in 2010 - a year when Republicans made big gains in Congress. And Obama has the backing of labor unions, who have unleashed their workers to turn out the vote for him and other Democrats in Clark County, where most Nevadans live.
For their part, Republicans say they have launched an ambitious election effort to catch up to Obama. Republicans have knocked on nearly 370,000 doors and made more than 1.3 million calls to Nevada voters. A key goal: persuading non-partisan voters, who make up roughly 17% of the electorate, to go with Romney.
Romney, aided by the cash-flush Republican National Committee, "has a better ground game than the state party ever has," says Bob List, a former Nevada governor and ex-RNC national committeeman.
A rough economy
Nevada, one of the states hardest hit in the Great Recession, gives Romney one of his best opportunities to make the presidential race a referendum on the economy.
Nevada's unemployment rate stood at 12.1% in August, the highest in the nation. The state leads the nation in bankruptcies and ranks fifth in foreclosures. And 70% of Nevada homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac.
Also favoring Romney: Roughly 6% of the state's adults share his religious faith. His fellow Mormons made up 25% of GOP caucusgoers this year, exit polls show - helping propel Romney to an overwhelming victory. In addition, the state is home base of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has poured more than $50 million into outside Republican political groups.
Yet in an early sign of organizational strength, Democrats held a nearly 90,000 registration advantage over Republicans among active voters this week. The gap could grow wider: The powerful, 55,000-member Culinary Workers Union recently launched its voter-outreach operation and has knocked on more than 95,000 doors since Sept. 4.
Also complicating matters for Republicans: Texas Rep. Ron Paul's supporters this year seized control of the state GOP and its branch in Clark County and some have fought bitterly with other longtime Republicans in the state. The dissension burst onto the national stage in August when a majority of the state's delegates ignored Romney's victory in the Feb. 4 caucuses to nominate Paul as the GOP presidential nominee at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
In early May, Romney's campaign and the Republican National Committee launched a parallel organization, Team Nevada, to oversee GOP election efforts. Romney aides say they have a robust voter identification and turnout operation that exceeds the party's efforts in 2004 when Bush won by a narrow margin.
Chris Carr, Romney's Nevada campaign manager, and other campaign officials dismiss the Republican Party fights as bad publicity that will have no real effect on election results. Only a small percentage of Paul supporters have not joined the Romney effort, Carr says.
Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Reno, questions whether the Republican push will be sufficient. "This is a state where Democrats should be down 5 or 6 points and scrambling," he says. "But the Republicans are in disarray, and all the parts of the Democratic coalition are back working for Obama."
Herzik, a Republican who voted for Romney in the 2008 and 2012 party caucuses, says he sees the Democratic advantage at work in his Republican neighborhood in Reno. In a 10-day period, he received two separate visits from Obama backers and a third from an AFL-CIO worker aiding Obama.
He has yet to get a Republican visit, he says, though his mailbox is filled each day with the GOP's glossy mailers. "They are literally mailing it in."
Potent ground operation
Obama's team invested heavily and early in a massive operation of field organizers to train and recruit volunteers in swing states. His payroll had swollen to 900 people at the end of August, more than double the 403 employed by Romney, according to the latest campaign filings. In Ohio alone, Obama has opened 121 offices to Romney's 40.
"We've invested for years ... in the battleground states," Obama's national field director Jeremy Bird says. "You can't fake a real ground game, and if you don't have one, you can't compensate with a billion-dollar barrage of false ads at the 11th hour."
The president is "trying to personally lower the unemployment rate by hiring field staff," Romney political director Rich Beeson retorts. "We've never been concerned about having more staff and offices. We have an incredibly motivated base of volunteers out there."
There's no doubt Obama's campaign has had a head start in Nevada, spending heavily as Romney fended off primary challengers to clinch the nomination, he says. But "Nevadans are smart," Beeson adds. "They will ask the same questions the rest of the country is asking: Can we afford four more years of Barack Obama?"
Las Vegas resident Ricardo Ritchie says no. Ritchie, 58, has been hit hard by the state's housing crash. The road-construction foreman has been out of work since July 2009, four months after his wife lost her public-relations job. Neither has found work in the three years since.
Their household income has dropped from nearly $200,000 a year to about $25,000 - money Ritchie says he makes by investing their savings in the stock market.
About once a week, he also volunteers for the Romney campaign. A born-again Christian and abortion opponent, Ritchie says he's as motivated by social issues as he is the economy. "We have an administration that does not value life," he says.
A hand-lettered sign in the phone-bank room of Team Nevada headquarters reminds volunteers of Romney's strong performance in the Oct. 3 debate against Obama. "Mitt did his part on Wednesday," it declares. "Now we do ours!"
Romney's Nevada aides say they saw an uptick in volunteers after the first presidential debate. And Republicans say internal polls show the race tightening in the state.
So why isn't the GOP nominee ahead? The state's politics has changed with its demographics, as Californians have poured into Las Vegas and its Clark County suburbs, Carr says. "Without Clark County's Democrats, this would be a red state," he says.
Courting the Hispanic vote
No state added residents at a faster pace in the first decade of this century than Nevada. And as the state grew, so did its Latino population - soaring to 27.1% of residents in 2011, up from 19.7% in 2000.
Latinos are an important voting bloc in Nevada. Nearly 270,000 are eligible to vote in the state this year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Bush, the last incumbent up for re-election, won the state by just 21,500 votes.
Obama appears to be widening his lead among Latino voters nationally. The president had the support of 70% of registered Hispanic voters compared to 20% backing Romney, in a Telemundo-NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey of Latino registered voters released Oct. 3.
Obama's approval rating also shot up 11% among Hispanic voters since August, pollsters found - two months after he used his executive powers to halt deportations of some young illegal immigrants who were brought to the USA as young children. "It may be seen as cynical, but it was a great political move by Obama," says David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Ortiz, who signed the voting pledge, says she knows at least 10 young people likely to escape deportation because of Obama's action. "I think people didn't have faith in him before, but now they do."
Romney has sought to make inroads in Nevada's Latino community. The campaign's Spanish-language commercials are in rotation. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of just two Hispanic U.S. senators, has stumped for Romney, and Romney recently opened a field office in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood.
Craig Romney, the candidate's youngest son who learned Spanish during his missionary work in Chile, headlined the kickoff. About 120 people attended, Team Nevada spokesman Darren Littell said.
Two days later, Obama was back in the state, accompanied by the Grammy-winning Mexican rock group, Maná. He drew a crowd of 11,000.
Union vote drive
Nearly half of the Culinary Workers Union's members - who clean rooms, run cash registers and cook meals at the city's casinos and hotels - are Latino.
The union is paying 76 workers and 14 union activists to identify, register and turn out voters for Obama and other Democrats. D. Taylor, the union's secretary-treasurer, says he's "cautiously optimistic" that the union's get-out-the-vote effort will make a difference.
"Is it 2008?" he says of Obama's 12-point win in Nevada. "No. But nothing compares to 2008. I think it's going to be a dogfight to the end."
Sedalia Loucious, 54, has taken a leave of absence from her hotel housekeeping job to knock on doors for eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week until Election Day. She did similar work for Obama in 2008, hit the streets again for Reid in 2010 and spent three weeks last March in the Midwest, helping to open Obama campaign offices in Ohio and Michigan.
"I'm happy to do it for Mr. Obama," says Loucious, who is African American. "I wish my parents had been alive to see this."
Over the course of an hour on a Friday morning, she walks through a neighborhood of mostly one-story, brown stucco houses, sprinkled with members of the Culinary Union or a sister labor organization. It's her second tour through the neighborhood. In a town where casinos operate around the clock, she's hoping to catch voters before they head to work or on their way home.
On the fourth try, she gets an answer, when a petite woman opens the door.
She speaks no English, but recognizes the president's name. "Sí, Obama, sí," she declares over the din of two barking dogs. A likely supporter. Loucious makes a note to return again, this time with a Spanish speaker.