By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times –
LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney spent years cultivating voters in Nevada, and it paid off Saturday with a commanding victory that not only pushed him closer to the GOP nomination but laid a strong marker in a state both parties will fight to carry in November.
Romney also won the Nevada caucuses in 2008, one of the few impressive performances of his failed bid for the Republican nomination, and he never really stopped campaigning here. The only question was whether Romney would top the 51 percent he received four years ago; he was winning just under that in early returns.
Trailing far behind were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who were locked in a close fight for second. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who eked out a win in Iowa but has faded since, was a distant fourth.
“Thank you, guys, what a great showing,” an exuberant Romney told supporters Saturday night in Las Vegas, as they waved white-and-blue placards reading, “Nevada believes.”
This is not the first time you gave me your vote of confidence,” he said, “and this time I’m going to to take it all the way to the White House.”
Gingrich, at a late-night news conference, said he would stay in the race until the late summer national party convention.
“I am a candidate for president of the United States. I will be a candidate for president of the United States,” he said. “We will continue to campaign all the way to Tampa.”
There are 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination and Romney has staked an early lead in that count after winning three of the first five contests, including a Florida blowout on Tuesday.
But more meaningful was the momentum Romney gained from his back-to-back wins, which will propel him forward to the next round of balloting on Tuesday in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri.
Beyond that, the former Massachusetts governor demonstrated strengths, like an impressive get-out-the-vote operation, that will serve him well in Nevada in the fall, should he emerge as the GOP nominee.
More than a quarter of the electorate Saturday was Mormon and more than 9 in 10 of that group voted for Romney, who shares their faith. That percentage of voters will shrink in the general election. Even so, Democrats acknowledge Romney starts with a strong, highly motivated base upon which to build for November.
But Romney’s strong performance Saturday grew out of more than religious affinity; he garnered support across much of the GOP, as he did in Florida and New Hampshire, the other states he won. Entrance polls showed him carrying just about every category of caucusgoer, but for the youngest voters, the secular and those making the least money, who preferred Paul.
Nevada saw a truncated campaign that disappointed many here who anticipated the state’s turn on the national stage and a chance to introduce Nevada’s woes and Western issues, like water and land use, into the presidential discussion.
Although Nevada has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, 12.6 percent, and leads the country in foreclosures, the candidates never discussed the housing collapse in any detail.
A feisty Romney alluded to both in his victory speech, laying into President Barack Obama and denying him any credit for January’s big job-creation report and a dip in the nation’s unemployment rate to 8.3 percent
“Mr. President, we welcome any good news on the jobs front,” Romney said. “But it is thanks to the innovation of the America people and the private sector and not to you, Mr President.”
There were a few only-in-Nevada moments in recent days; Paul’s hotbed of support in the state’s legal brothels was widely noted. But there was little else to distinguish the contest from those that preceded.
In part, that resulted from Nevada’s balloting being pushed back from fourth on the campaign calendar to fifth, after Florida elbowed its way ahead. But it also reflected the state of the race, with the front-running Romney largely gliding above the competition and declining to engage his opponents in the kind of raucous debate that marked earlier contests.
Instead, he spent most of his time focusing on Obama, laying the groundwork for what promises to be a hard-fought campaign between the parties for Nevada in the fall.
Gingrich continued to hammer at Romney, seizing on a comment he made Wednesday — “I’m not concerned about the very poor” — to open a new front in efforts to paint the former governor as the ideological twin of Obama. Romney said later he misspoke. But both, Gingrich said, are over-reliant on government programs to lift the poor, rather than creating opportunity.
Gingrich, though, was late setting up his Nevada campaign and suffered from unfortunate timing: Registration for the caucuses was cut off Jan. 20, the day before the big South Carolina win that resuscitated his campaign and positioned him as the main rival to Romney.
Compounding his problems was a series of missteps — at one point he stood up Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who stayed neutral in the contest — that further undermined Gingrich’s efforts in the state.
Nevada held out more promise to Paul, who waged a vigorous campaign after walking away from Florida. The congressman finished second in the 2008 caucuses and boasted a loyal core of supporters in the tea party movement, a significant power in Nevada politics, attracted by his anti-tax, limited-government platform.
But here, as elsewhere, Paul suffered from a perception that a vote for him amounted to little more than a protest or a pointless statement, given the extremely long odds against his winning the nomination.
Paul had already moved on Saturday, campaigning in Minnesota, which holds its caucuses on Tuesday. In a CNN interview, he ruled out any chance of quitting before next month’s Super Tuesday, when nearly a dozen states vote on March 6. “I think we’re doing so well, there’s no reason to even think about that,” Paul said.
The cash-poor Santorum also stumped a bit in Nevada, but his main focus appeared to be Missouri, which holds a nonbinding primary Tuesday. Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot there, and Santorum hopes a strong showing will bolster his claim to be the anti-Romney alternative.