By DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer
LAS VEGAS (AP) - They're called "the cooler crowd," and Las Vegas is greeting them with ambivalence: A stream of post-recession tourists ready for fun but watching their wallets.
They gamble less extravagantly than the typical visitor of the past, skimp on tips, sometimes lug coolers and microwaves into their hotel rooms to save on drinks and meals. They're a mixed blessing in a state hit as hard as any by the economic downturn and still struggling to recover.
They're not the only visitors, of course.
President Barack Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney have been here, competing strenuously for Nevada's six electoral votes in what is one of the most contested states. The candidates, too, have gotten a mixed reception. Some kingpins of the gambling industry are writing big campaign checks, but many Nevadans have other matters on their mind, namely foreclosures, layoffs, wage cuts, medical bills.
At the MGM Grand, one of the 30-plus lavish gambling resorts along the Las Vegas Strip, bell captain Craig Houston gets a good look at both the high rollers and the "cooler crowd" streaming into the grandiose lobby. Though many visitors are stingier than in the past, the flow of visitors has rebounded to pre-recession levels, and industry analysts say 2012 could end with a record.
By some measures, Houston is fortunate. In the state with the highest jobless rate, at 11.6 percent, he's back at work after being laid off from another resort in 2008, going through bankruptcy and losing his home. He's now a renter, and he tells his grown sons to stay out of the casino business. "You get upset that you're not making the money you used to," he says.
Houston, 50, says he's weary of political bickering and wishes for more focused efforts to boost the middle class. He's not overwhelmed by Obama's performance, but expects to vote for him anyway.
"Most people in this community have been in survival mode," said D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of a hotel workers union. "Of the things that are important to them, politics are about 18th on the checklist."
For many in the state, their wish list for the election is short.
"Mostly people will be looking at national economy _ looking for a broad recovery which gives people elsewhere more discretionary income to come here," said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Obama won the state in 2008, thanks in part to strong backing from union members and other working-class voters alarmed by the economic collapse. Four years later, Nevada is still beleaguered. It has lost 12 percent of its jobs during that span, the highest rate in the nation, and its foreclosure rate also remains one of the worst.
Given the pain inflicted by Nevada's housing crisis, it's not surprising that Obama's campaign ran an ad attempting to use Romney's own words against him.
"Don't try and stop the foreclosure process," Romney said during a visit to Las Vegas last year. "Let it run its course and hit the bottom."
Nelson Araujo of the Financial Guidance Center, which counsels hard-up Latino families in Las Vegas, said many of his clients were grateful to the Obama administration for federal initiatives, such as the U.S. Treasury's Hardest Hit Fund, that enabled some low-income homeowners to avoid foreclosures.
"Because we're such a hard-hit state, people want to know who's going to bring that aid," said Araujo, expressing skepticism that only private-sector efforts would suffice.
In greater Las Vegas, the state's economic engine and home to 72 percent of its people, the picture is mixed. At the high end, sales of luxury condominium units at the Trump International Hotel are surging, with many of the buyers from Asia.
The real estate and home-building sectors are improving, but slowly. Thousands of construction workers remain jobless.
Kolleen Kelley, president of the Las Vegas-area Realtors association, said her colleagues are bracing for slow progress, regardless of the election outcome.
"I don't know that they're blaming any one person or one party," she said. "This is not a simple fix. It's going to take a longer period of time to get us out from under."
Despite some recent diversification, Nevada's economy is more concentrated than virtually any other state. The tourism/gambling sector accounts for more than one-quarter of Nevada's 1.14 million nonfarm jobs, and 13 of the 20 largest employers are casino/hotel companies.
Thanks to intensive organizing in that industry, Nevada stands out as a rare stronghold for private sector unions. The hotel and casino operators, unlike counterparts in some other sectors, can't threaten to outsource or relocate, giving the unions some extra leverage.