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LAS VEGAS – President Barack Obama is setting the record straight — he loves Las Vegas. And Las Vegas was glad to hear it.

Obama had irked Nevada officials by using Las Vegas as an example of how people should not spend irresponsibly in tough times. But during an overnight visit to the city, Obama made it clear he meant no harm.

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“I love Vegas,” Obama told an audience of 650 business and tourism leaders Friday at a resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

His comments drew a raucous ovation from the crowd. Kara Kelley,chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, called the remarks “appropriate and welcomed.”

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Obama said his mother-in-law likes to visit Sin City and he outlined programs he hopes will boost tourism here. When a visiting Arkansas dentist told him everyone comes to Vegas, the president exclaimed: “That’s what I’m talking about.”

And when the man said he’d been spending money in the city, Obama replied: “That’s good, we like to see that.”

He also joked about gambling himself.

“Just last night, I hit a flush on the river and cut the budget deficit in half,” Obama said. “Some of you know I can play some poker.”

For all his effort to make amends, the president defended his comments from earlier this month that people who are saving for college shouldn’t blow a bunch of cash in Vegas.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t love Vegas,” Obama said. “I think everybody here would agree that the only place where people should spend their college savings is in college. There’s no contradiction there.”

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Tourism, Nevada‘s top industry, has suffered heavily during the recession. State gambling regulators reported Friday that major casinos in the state lost $6.8 billion from July 2008 through June 2009, a drop of more than 1,000 percent from profits of $721 million the prior year.

Obama has twice used Las Vegas as a symbol of irresponsible spending and remarked a year ago that recipients of federal bailout money should not go to the city with taxpayer dollars. Many here say that hurt tourism.

“I took it personal,” said Carla Montemayor, 61, of Henderson, Nev., who once worked selling jewelry at the Flamingo Hilton and whose husband is a waiter in a Las Vegas casino.

“Once, it could be regarded as a slip of the tongue, but twice — it sounds like a vendetta,” Montemayor said. She held a sign saying “Stop Throwing Las Vegas Under the Bus” as she stood outside the school where Obama spoke.

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