Reno, Nevada

On a late August Saturday, Joe Stoltz cuts chicken breasts into perfectly even chunks before dunking them in a teriyaki and honey marinade. The whole family will be here soon to partake in summer's last thrill. Monday will herald the start of fall -- and something even bigger.

For now, the nervousness is put on hold. The priority is barbecue.

Joe's dogs -- Apa, Molly and Reggie, as in running back Reggie Bush -- gaze longingly upward at the food on the kitchen counter.

His two younger children, son Logan, 11, and daughter Sydney, 14, are making the most of their final weekend of freedom before school starts. The house echoes with the giggles of their friends. His oldest son, 21-year-old Ry, is at work at Raley's, a grocery store down the street.

The day before, Joe had taken Sydney shopping to buy new clothes. He can hardly believe his little girl has grown into a high school freshman.

He felt relieved she wanted to shop at Plato's Closet, a store that sells "gently used" brand names for teens and young adults. The bill came to $47.40. His wife, Becky, made sure he took a coupon that knocked it down another $5. Not bad for shoes, a hoodie, several shirts and a pair of jeans, he thought.

At 43, his life had come down to counting every dollar. That's what happens in a recession when you can't find work.

Every month, the Stoltzes come up short on their bills. They shelved all their dreams after the real estate crash left Joe, who co-owned a flooring business, without any jobs.

A child of the Pacific Northwest, he's never seen the East Coast. He realizes now that he will have to wait a while longer before he can eat lobster in Maine, see skyscrapers in New York and take his kids to see the Smithsonian in Washington. That's the nation's history, he says.

Joe joined the ranks of tens of thousands of Nevadans who could not find work as they watched their state top two unhappy lists: the highest unemployment rate and the highest number of foreclosures in the nation.

Many of them voted for President Barack Obama, who handily won Nevada in 2008, but this go-around, the Silver State is up for grabs.

The state's rural areas will probably go for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Las Vegas is expected to vote for Obama. But Washoe County, where Reno is located, is evenly split. It's a battleground county in a battleground state.

Here, every voter will count. And here, plenty of them suffered in the recession, especially in the construction sector.

In mid-2006, more than 25,500 people in Washoe County were working in construction. Three years later, the county registered only 11,600 construction jobs.

Stung by an empty pocketbook, Joe doesn't know who'll get his support come November. He knows this, though: He's part of a new voting bloc of the long-term unemployed whom both campaigns see as gold.

That's evident simply by the number of political ads that air here every day -- almost every commercial break.

Joe's always been an independent voter: He registered as a Republican only because he had to list a party affiliation in Nevada. He votes for a candidate, he says, not along party lines.

He pays attention to the electoral buzz on television, though he's not particularly a fan of ads featuring folks who've been jobless and down. He doesn't need others telling him about his own life. He doesn't care much for the mud-slinging, either. It's so tough to sort through the bitterness and figure out what Obama and Romney really stand for, he says.

A new Obama ad featuring Bill Clinton especially made him pause and look. He's a Clinton fan.

For Joe, a presidential election has never been as intensely personal. This time, he has everything at stake: his marriage, his family, his future.

"I'm not really turned off by Obama," he says, "as much as I'm just not 100% sure."

He thinks Romney may be too wealthy to relate to people like him. Joe is not a believer in trickle-down economics and doesn't support cutting taxes for the rich. But he's bothered that America's deficit has soared to $16 trillion. Maybe, he says, Washington needs a businessman like Romney who is good with money.

Joe looks at the clock. It's just past 10:30 in the morning. He's still got to make the lemonade, get ice, cut up the vegetables for the kebab skewers and clean the pool for the afternoon gathering.

The dreaded pager screeches inside Becky's purse.

She's had only two jobs in all her 40 years. The first was selling burgers at Hardee's as a teenager. The second, as a cardiovascular technician at a Reno hospital. She's the one who helps surgeons put in pacemakers and defibrillators or perform angioplasties. This weekend, like many weekends, she's on call. She'd just come home at 6 a.m. from an overnight procedure. Now, she has to go to work again.

That's the way it has been since she started volunteering for more on-call duty to make extra money. One recent Christmas weekend, she got paged 13 times.

Becky puts on her purple scrubs and hurtles toward her Nissan pickup with coffee in hand.

"Bye, babe!" Joe says. "I hope it's not a long one."

He hates that Becky has to work so hard to make ends meet. He wants someone in Washington to fix the economy, to make things easier for middle-class Americans.

He used to think the economy would turn around quickly. That didn't happen.

He finally came up with a plan for his own family: In the coming days, he's taking big steps to reinvent himself. But he's not sure which candidate's plan is right for the country, which one will reinvent America.

"Everything is so vague," he says, cutting the last of the chicken. "They tell you what they are going to do, but they never give you the details."

The doorbell rings, a sure trigger for Molly, the Chihuahua, to bark from her spot on the couch. It's Laura, the first of Becky's sisters to arrive for the party. From there, it's a steady stream of almost 20 people.

Another sister, Diane, arrives next with peanut butter and chocolate cake in hand, along with her husband, Steve Dullanty -- Joe's former business partner. Steve offers to help assemble the kebabs on the bamboo skewers. Pepper, onion, mushroom, beef or chicken. Then repeat.

He asks Joe about Obama's visit to Reno a few days before.

"I bet that was pretty cool seeing the president," Steve says.

"Yeah, that was pretty cool, actually."

It was the first time Joe had seen a president up close. He liked that on his Reno campaign stop, Obama focused on higher education as the "pathway to the middle class." He especially liked that Obama said he and Michelle did not come from rich families and that it took years for them to pay off their student loans.

That was a message that resonated.

Joe heads out back to the concrete patio he poured a few years ago. It's a hot one: 95 degrees outside. He grabs another can of Rockstar, the energy drink he's been gulping ever since he gave up soda.

Today, there'll be talk of sports, the kids, food. But better to refrain from politics with the family, he says. Too many warring opinions.

Joe and Becky Stoltz never wanted to be wealthy. They just craved a better life than what their parents had. They wanted to send all three of their kids to college and have enough left over to retire.

Joe grew up in Spokane, Washington, the youngest of three kids whose father started out as a bus driver and worked his way up to a systems analyst for the transit authority.

He was only 6 when the first "Star Wars" movie hit theaters. He imagined himself as Luke Skywalker, pretending that falling leaves in autumn were galactic invaders.

Becky was raised in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. She, too, was the baby in a family of five girls. Her troubled teenage years were the opposite of what she wishes now for her own children. By the time she was 19, she'd had her first child, Ry, with an older man she wanted nothing to do with anymore. Unhappy and alone, Becky went to visit her sisters Laura and Diane, who at the time were living in Spokane.

She met Joe there and never looked back.

Joe knew it would be tough supporting a family. But he was willing to work hard.

They began their lives together humbly. During their first date at a Jack in the Box, Joe snuck a peek in his wallet as Becky was ordering, just to make sure he had enough money. Later, he proposed in the rain after they'd been to see a stage production of "The Diary of Anne Frank."

Joe got his hands dirty building houses while Becky enrolled in college to become a cardiovascular technician. She graduated and found a hospital job that took her and Joe from the greenery of Washington to the desert drab of Reno. Downtown boasts casino after casino, but "the biggest little city in the world" sits on a high desert at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, and Joe and Becky, both outdoor enthusiasts, loved the scenery and ski slopes.

Nevada's real estate market was booming, and Joe had no trouble finding work. One day, there was sand and dirt and barren hills; the next day, an entire subdivision was popping up.

The Stoltzes saved money and, in a few years, moved out of their rented duplex. They bought a house built in 1962 in a subdivision west of downtown. They paid $162,000, but its value soon soared to $425,000. That's how white-hot the Nevada housing market was then.

Joe knocked down a few walls, renovated the bathroom and painted the front rooms in textured jewel tones. Becky bought five boxes of brown and white glass tiles on sale at Costco for a kitchen makeover. But that project, like their other dreams, had to be put on hold.

Joe worked with his brother-in-law Steve, who eventually persuaded him to switch from building houses to installing flooring. The work, Steve says, was lucrative and much less grueling than being out in the hot sun all day. They worked for a company called Carpeteria and laid floors in swanky homes, including a Lake Tahoe retreat owned by CBS anchor Walter Cronkite.

Life seemed good. The Stoltzes had saved enough money to enroll their two older kids in a state-run prepaid college tuition program.

They were, as Becky says, "building up their lives."

In 2008, Joe and Steve started their own business: S&D Flooring. They thought they would save people money by cutting out the middle man. They'd lay down hardwood for $3.50 a square foot instead of the $5 many companies charged.

"The flooring thing was a bit of a gamble," Joe says. "When it was good, it was really, really good, and then, suddenly, it wasn't there."

As the economy began its painful downward slide, S&D Flooring floundered. Housing construction slowed, and no one had money to spend on luxury items like hardwood floors.

Maybe they could have marketed themselves harder, Joe says, trying to come to terms with what he saw as failure.

In the end, all that Joe and Steve were left with were a website and thousands of glossy business cards.

At first, he was optimistic the economy would pick up again and business would get back on track. He thought Obama would be able to turn things around.

Many of Nevada's long-term unemployed are like Joe: people who lost work, put their faith in a new president and then gradually lost hope as money got tighter and tighter.

Obama and Romney both know that well and have visited the state several times this year.

Joe has voted for Democrats before: Clinton in his second term and Al Gore in the controversial 2000 election. He has to think hard to remember how he voted in 2004. It was that close for him.

"I think in the end, I voted for (John) Kerry," he says. He and Becky had both been impressed with Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, long before scandal ended his political career.

In 2008, after Joe's flooring business went belly-up, the choice seemed clearer.

"I think Obama inherited a lot of problems," he says. "We're still living in the Bush years."

But work didn't come his way, and as Obama wrestled with Republicans in Congress to pass a stimulus program and health-care reform, Joe found himself mired in gloom.

"I had a failed business," he says. "It hurt inside."

Joe's kids noticed that Daddy was spending a lot of time in front of the television. "American Pickers" is his favorite show, but he doesn't even remember what he watched, just that he spent hours numbing himself.

He applied for a furniture showroom sales job once but felt he wasn't hired because of his tattoo. It shows Wolfman and Frankenstein drag-racing motorcycles through a cemetery and runs the length of his right arm. The man who interviewed him kept staring at it.

Joe was afraid to do anything that was not related to construction. He didn't think he could succeed. He lost all confidence.

The family was surviving on one income.

They gave up trips to the mall, Starbucks coffees and dinners at their favorite restaurant, Ichiban, at Harrah's casino downtown. Instead, they opted for an occasional meal at Chili's.

Becky clipped coupons and stretched dinners over two nights instead of cooking fresh every day. She needs a new car but put her wish for a Mini Cooper on hold.

"Now I got two kids who need braces," she says.

She shows off a blown glass vase in their living room, proud that she paid $6 for it at a clearance sale at Kohl's. Not bad, she says, for something that was originally priced at $60. That's how she shops. Always.

And she began working more, accepting overtime and on-call duty.

"I tried to be patient," she says, thinking back. "But I was stressed."

Becky's mother, Nancy, has lived with them since not long after Becky's dad died of a heart attack at the Nugget casino in nearby Carson City; it was his first day on the job there.

Nancy's only income is a meager Social Security check every month, so the Stoltzes asked her to move in. They knew she wouldn't be able to have a life on her own.

They liked that Grandma was there for their kids. But it added to the financial strain.

Becky, who has suffered from bouts of depression all her life, was now seeing it in her husband.

She knew he was trying to help at home. He became Mr. Mom, doing laundry, cooking dinner, taking the kids to their sporting events. "Cinderfella," jokes brother-in-law Steve.

But when Becky would come home from the hospital and see him sitting in front of the television, she'd get angry.

She took up roller derby as a way to relieve her stress. Becky was gone six to eight hours a week, taking out her aggression on the skating rink as Randy Rhoadkill, a name she took from the heavy metal guitarist who played with Ozzy Osbourne.

Eventually, she liked that she was called into work so much. It kept her away from home and was a way to prevent fights with her husband.

She saw their future slipping away.

Before Joe lost his business, they had bought a second home down the street. It was going to be Joe's retirement stash. His parents eventually moved into that house, but they couldn't cover the entire mortgage.

Joe and Becky thought they would relieve some of the pressure by refinancing their own house through a government program meant to help people whose houses are under water. Once valued at more than $400,000, the house is now worth only $140,000 -- less than they paid 12 years ago.

He applied for the refinancing in February but is still waiting for the paperwork to go through. It could mean a precious $500 or $600 more a month.

Through tough times, Joe says, he kept his sanity by coaching basketball and soccer for elementary and junior high kids. He's always believed in the spirit of team sports. It teaches you to interact with people, to prepare for the real world, he says.

But he wasn't working, and Becky knew her husband was unhappy. She told him to stop the self-pity, that she didn't know him anymore.

He wasn't the man she had married.

“There are those who dream and wish and there are those who dream and work."

Joe came across that saying this year on his smartphone's motivational app and wrote it down. He taped the paper to his bathroom mirror so he would see it first thing in the morning.

It was time to get his act together. He could no longer wait for a president to make things better.

At first, he thought he would try welding and visited Truckee Meadows Community College to find out about enrolling in their metalworking classes. He ended up signing up for a five-week course this summer that helps first-time students -- many of them first-generation or low-income -- prepare for college.

The first day, he came home and threw his books on the table. He told Becky it was too hard. It was embarrassing sitting in class with kids his son's age. He didn't even know how to type. How was he going to get through English, one of the core requirements?

Becky said she would help him with anything he needed.

"Change was coming," she says. "I was going to do my part."

One of his summer classes focused on personal development. It broadened Joe's thinking and boosted his confidence. It taught him, he says, to be a creator instead of a victim.

At the end of the class, each student had to say something about the others.

"Joe, you are really awesome," wrote one. "I admire that you never gave up on your dreams and decided to go to college."

He finished his summer classes with a 4.0 average, and the college rewarded him with an $800 bonus. He waited for it to show up in his bank account before buying pens, notebooks, glue sticks and other school supplies for Sydney and Logan.

Joe signed up for classes this fall, paid for by a Pell Grant, a federal need-based financial assistance program that Obama wants to increase and Romney wants to cut. That's a sticking point for Joe. If Romney says he would completely eliminate Pell Grants, Joe might find it hard to check his name come November.

"My education right now is what is keeping me going," he says.

His long-term plan: After two years at the community college, transfer to the University of Nevada-Reno and earn a degree in environmental engineering. He'd like to work in renewable energy, make use of Nevada sunshine to produce abundant solar power.

"Joe -- he's always had big dreams," Becky says. "I think now, with a college degree, he'll be able to realize them."

On Sunday, the day before school starts, the kids are out, and the house is quiet, the party of the previous day behind them and no hint of the hubbub to come. Joe sits at the dining table messing with his shiny new possession.

For his birthday on August 22, the family gave him a Hewlett-Packard laptop. It's the first computer they've bought in 10 years. They wanted him to start college with the proper tools.

One of the first things he checked out was a Romney website.

"I like his plan for work requirements for welfare," Joe says. "That was a Bill Clinton thing."

Joe has ideas on how to put welfare recipients to work. Moms could work at their kids' schools, help with tutoring or in the lunchroom or coach sports. That would help them gain confidence, he says.

He gets up from the table and moves closer to the television when there's news of a new job report. Nevada still has the nation's highest unemployment rate: 12%.

"That's why he's been here so many times," he says of Obama.

Joe worries that if Obama is re-elected, America will stay on the same gloomy economic track. He wants to know more about Romney's five-point plan. It includes balancing the federal budget and cutting health-care costs. But Joe's not sure how Romney will create jobs. He hasn't heard Romney lay it all out.

"I'd really like to hear him speak about Nevada," he says. "Not because I live in this state but because they need to start with the worst."

Logan flies into the house with his friend Mike, who's just moved in next door from China. They have white T-shirts over their heads. Joe shakes his head at their silliness.

Ry is back at work, making sandwiches behind the deli counter at Raley's.

And Sydney is at church.

Neither Becky nor Joe is a fan of organized religion. They prefer the Native American way of thinking that a higher power manifests itself through the sun, moon and stars. But when Sydney approached them recently about attending a Baptist church with friends, they were not opposed. Becky thought church would help Sydney fit in, keep her grounded the way Becky never was at that difficult age.

Some faith-based positions bother the Stoltzes. Becky was undecided until Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate and she researched his conservative social beliefs. Joe says he'll listen intently when Obama and Romney debate -- and not just to their views on the economy.

He's a firm supporter of abortion rights. It's a woman's choice, he says. No conditions attached. But he could overlook the GOP position on abortion if Romney offered a strong economic plan.

Another problem is the Republican view on immigration policy. This land was built by immigrants, Joe says. Why would we close our doors now? He's sure he will hear more about that issue in the debates.

Joe thinks about fixing dinner. He's got a box full of recipes and sifts through them for something to make with the leftover chicken from Saturday's party. He settles on fajitas.

When the kids return home, the mood changes. Logan's going back to elementary school, Sydney will start high school, and Joe will begin community college with Ry.

Joe raised Ry as his own and adopted him formally after Ry told him he wanted Stoltz as his last name.

Ry moved out of the house after high school but came home in December after dropping out of college. Joe and Becky convinced him to give it another try, especially now that Joe was going to start for the first time.

This is an important Sunday for the Stoltzes. If anxiety were like rain, there'd be a downright downpour.

Logan takes out his backpack, untouched since the spring, and discovers an uneaten bag of Goldfish crackers.

"Ry," he says. "My summer ends in five hours."

The first day of school means many things to Logan. Among them is having to return to a strict schedule that includes a school-night ban on video games.

"Am I going back to PlayStation on weekends?" he asks.

"Yup, even if you don't have homework, I want you to focus on school," Joe says.

Logan's wearing his school uniform polo shirt to make sure it fits.

"Hey, Dad, will you measure me?" Logan asks. He's almost 5 feet tall now.

"Quit growing," Becky says.

Again, the pager screams from her purse.

"Bye. Should be a quick one," she says. "It's a temporary pacemaker."

Joe is left to handle the kids by himself.

"Dad, how sure are you that we'll have homework on the first day?" Sydney asks, carrying a basket of laundry into the garage.

"Pretty sure," Joe says. "This is serious. You're in high school now."

When the clock strikes 9, he shoos Logan and Sydney to bed.

"Five more minutes, Dad," Logan says.

"No. Now. I'll have Mom come say good night to you when she gets home."

Becky doesn't get home until midnight. Before the kids have woken up the next morning, she has already gone back to work.

Joe thought he would have to coax his children to get up for school. Maybe even shock them awake with ice. No need. They are so nervous that they've jumped out of bed and are raring to go.

"Are you nervous?" Joe asks.

"They should make summer longer," Logan responds, pacing the hallway.

A friend's mom picks Sydney up; Joe drives Logan to Mount Rose Elementary and helps him navigate to his new classroom.

"All right, now it's my turn to get nervous," he says, driving his Chevy Suburban up a hill to Truckee Meadows Community College. "This is the first day of the rest of my life."

A week ago, he had stood in the jam-packed student center to hear Obama talk about the importance of education. Now, that message was very personal. He felt he was fulfilling his dream. He felt as challenged as he did years ago when a construction supervisor handed him a blueprint to a 5,000-square-foot house and told him it was all his to build.

He heads to the bookstore to pick up a text for his first class: keyboarding. That's the 21st-century term for typing. He rented the book for $140 instead of paying more to buy it.

He signs off on the return date and makes his way to Room 204 in the Red Mountain building. The hallway is lined with fellow students waiting for the teacher to arrive and unlock the classroom door.

"Hi, I'm Joe," he says.

"Hi, I'm Anthony," says a student who will turn 21 soon. There's chatter about being able to drink legally and, for some, casting their first presidential ballot.

"I vaguely remember 21," Joe says.

Joe Stoltz takes his seat in front of a computer workstation. This is the day when he begins again. Election Day will be equally momentous. He's already made a tough decision about his own life. He has a few more weeks left to make one about America.