By: Fredreka Schouten, USA TODAY
1:11AM EDT October 18. 2012 - LAS VEGAS — 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.
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“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.