Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, arrives at a campaign rally in Henderson, Nev., Friday.
Associated Press Enlarge
LAS VEGAS -- Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney cruised to victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday night, notching a second straight triumph over a field of rivals struggling to keep pace.
"Thank you NV!," his campaign posted on the social network Twitter as the results were announced. "Our message of restoring America's greatness continues to resonate through the west & across the country."
The former Massachusetts governor won the Florida primary less than one week ago.
He held a double-digit lead over his nearest pursuer in Nevada, where fellow Mormons accounted for roughly a quarter of all caucus-goers.
Returns from several counties that are lightly populated showed Mr. Romney receiving 47 percent of the vote.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with 22 percent of the vote, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, with 19 percent, vied for second. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum trailed, at 12 percent.
Nevada's caucuses were sedate -- so quiet that they produced little television advertising, no candidate debates, and only a modest investment of time by the contenders.
A total of 28 Republican National Convention delegates were at stake in caucuses held across a sprawling state that drew little attention in the nominating campaign but figures to be a fierce battleground in the fall between the winner of the GOP nomination and President Obama.
The state's unemployment rate was measured at 12.6 percent in December, the worst in the country.
According to an Associated Press count, Mr. Romney began the day with 87 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination.
Mr. Gingrich had 26, Mr. Santorum had 14, and Mr. Paul had 4.
Preliminary results of a poll of Nevada Republicans entering their caucuses showed that nearly half said the most important consideration in their decision was a candidate's ability to defeat Mr. Obama this fall, a finding in line with other states.
About one-quarter of those surveyed are Mormon, roughly the same as in 2008, when Mr. Romney won with more than a majority of the vote in a multi-candidate field.
The entrance poll was conducted by Edison Research for Associated Press at 25 randomly selected caucus sites.
It included 1,553 interviews and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Nevada awarded its delegates in proportion to the caucus vote totals, meaning that any candidate who captured at least 3.57 percent of the total number of ballots cast would be rewarded.
By contrast, Mr. Romney's victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday netted him all 50 of the delegates at stake there.
Mr. Romney's victory in Nevada's 2008 caucuses, coupled with the heavy presence of voters who share his Mormon faith, turned the state into something of a way-station on the campaign calendar.
There are just over 175,000 Mormons in the state, roughly 7 percent of the population.
But they accounted for nearly a quarter of all 2008 Nevada GOP caucus-goers.
Mr. Gingrich said he'd be happy to finish second, behind Mr. Romney and ahead of Mr. Paul.
Mr. Paul was one of two candidates to air television ads in the state, hoping for a close second-place finish if not an upset.
Mr. Romney was the other, joined by Restore Our Future, the organization that supports him and has been heavily involved in earlier states.
Mr. Santorum campaigned relatively little in Nevada, although he picked up the support of Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite who won the GOP Senate nomination in a 2010 upset and then lost her race to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Nevada caucuses, coming four days after the Florida primary, meant little time for the type of intense campaign that characterized the first month of the race.
The most memorable event of the four-day Nevada campaign was an endorsement that flamboyant billionaire Donald Trump bestowed on Mr. Romney in Las Vegas in a circus-like atmosphere that followed reports he would back Mr. Gingrich. The campaign event was brief, and Mr. Paul mocked The Donald and his decision.
"I don't think he has that much credibility. I don't understand why we pay attention to him," he said.
Mr. Paul campaigned in Minnesota Saturday and Mr. Santorum was in Colorado.
"The one thing that is on our side is the American people are waking up," Mr. Paul said in a speech in Rochester, Minn., that was frequently interrupted by applause.
The Texan has yet to win a primary or caucus state.
In Montrose, Colo., Mr. Santorum told Republicans that Washington has gone too far in its environmental policies, especially in the West. He said over-reaching environmental regulators were trampling on ranchers with a Washington-knows-best approach.
"We'll make sure that you don't do something to scar the land or endanger a newt," Mr. Santorum said. "No, not that Newt. I want to endanger that Newt. That's a different story."
Mr. Santorum planned to visit Minnesota late Saturday after the Nevada caucus results were announced. He planned a full day on Sunday, including a church visit and a stop at the factory that produces the sweater vests his campaign sells for $100 each to raise money.
Mr. Gingrich combined campaigning and fund-raising in his time in Nevada, in hopes of righting a campaign that was victorious in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, only to crater 10 days later in Florida.
Eager to demonstrate he intends to fight on, he announced plans to campaign next week in Ohio, one of several states with a Super Tuesday primary on March 6.
His Florida victory in hand, Mr. Romney was acting like a front-runner again, campaigning against Mr. Obama more than Mr. Gingrich.
Mr. Romney's victory in Nevada should provide momentum heading to Tuesday's caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and set him up for primaries in Michigan and Arizona at the end of the month.
Mr. Romney is favored in Colorado. Minnesota is harder to predict.
Definitive results were not expected until late Saturday because of the timing of individual caucuses.
Virtually all caucuses were scheduled to finish by midafternoon, Nevada time.
But in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, one caucus was scheduled to begin after sundown to give Orthodox Jews an opportunity to participate. That delayed results from the other caucuses in the county earlier in the day.
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