By Jeff Mason
RENO, Nevada (Reuters) - President Barack Obama touted mortgage relief on Friday in Nevada, a battleground state important to his re-election hopes, as he turned his focus back to the economy at the end of a week dominated by his declaration of support for gay marriage.
Nevada's housing market was hit especially hard by the U.S. economic downturn, and Obama, a Democrat, who polls show leading in the state, is eager to show he is doing something to help relieve struggling homeowners' pain, while seeking to cast Republicans as indifferent.
Obama told an audience in Reno his opponents "want to let the housing market hit bottom and just hope for the best," a swipe at presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who said the foreclosure process should be allowed to run its course.
Polls show that the economy is the issue voters care most about in the campaign for the November 6 election. Obama needs to be seen addressing voters' concerns after his announcement of support for same-sex marriage, a potentially divisive topic on the campaign trail.
To make his point, Obama visited Val and Paul Keller, who the White House said benefited from its refinancing initiative.
The Kellers have a $168,000 loan for a house now worth roughly $100,000, a White House official said. The couple was able to refinance thanks to a program pushed by the president last year for people who are "underwater" on their homes.
Obama is pushing Congress to smooth the way for more people to take advantage of low interest rates with mortgage refinancing assistance, part of a "to-do list" for lawmakers that Obama unveiled earlier this week.
'GOT TO HAVE CONGRESS MOVE'
"We've got to have Congress move. There's absolutely no reason why they can't make this happen right now," he told a small crowd of neighbors and reporters in the Kellers' driveway.
"So, I need all of you, and everybody who's watching, to push Congress on their to-do list. Nag 'em until they actually get it done. We need to keep moving this country forward."
Some Democrats in Congress are trying to drum up support for widening a government program that aims to help homeowners with government-backed loans to refinance. Republicans remain leery of broad-based housing relief programs that could be costly to the government.
About 1.1 million borrowers have refinanced through the Obama administration's Home Affordable Refinance Program, which was enacted in 2009 to help borrowers with little or no equity in their homes. But convincing Congress to agree to added mortgage relief has been a tough sell for the White House.
Nevada is a critical place to make that sale.
Its housing market was crushed when the U.S. real estate bubble burst and prices remain far from the peaks reached in 2006, although local realtors report recent trends have been encouraging, with sale prices and volumes up from last year.
Obama won Nevada in 2008, besting Republican opponent John McCain, but the state is now among a handful of political battlegrounds that could swing to the Democrats or Republicans this year.
A recent survey from Rasmussen give Obama an 8-point lead in Nevada over Romney, who has hit Obama hard for his handling of the economy.
That issue is likely to resonate in Nevada, where unemployment of 12 percent in March was well above the national average.
Obama has made repeated trips over the past several months to Nevada and Colorado, another Western swing state that could hold the key to his re-election if states in the eastern half of the country, such as Ohio and Florida, go Republican in November.
(Additional reporting by Margaret Chadburn, Alister Bull and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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