Mitt Romney won an overwhelming victory in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, giving the former Massachusetts governor his second consecutive victory of the year as he tightened his claim to dominant front-runner status in what had been a turbulent Republican presidential race.
After his easy victory in Florida last Tuesday, Romney’s big win in Nevada, where he also won four years ago, will provide additional momentum heading to Tuesday’s caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and set him up for more significant primaries in Michigan and Arizona at the end of the month. The outcome will increase pressure on his rivals to demonstrate how and where they plan to stop him, if they can.
Romney was far ahead of his closest rivals. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) were battling for second place. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum was running fourth. Turnout was far below the primaries in Florida, South Carolina or New Hampshire and less than in Iowa’s caucuses.
As Romney celebrated his third victory in five contests, his rivals vowed to continue fighting. But the upcoming calendar provides those chasing Romney with significant few opportunities for victory in coming weeks. Gingrich and Santorum each would like to take on Romney without the other draining off conservative votes but neither has shown any interest in bowing to the other. Paul demonstrated again in Nevada that he can do well in caucus states with limited turnout but has yet to show real strength in a big state.
The first weeks of the Republican race have played out at the pace of a sprint. But the primary-caucus calendar slows to a walk in February, before resuming with a flurry of contests on March 6, this year’s Super Tuesday.
Romney is favored in Colorado on Tuesday, while Minnesota is less predictable. Maine caucuses began Saturday but will not be completed for a week. Both Arizona and Michigan are regarded as Romney territory at this point. Gingrich’s first real opportunities won’t arrive until Super Tuesday.
Romney will use the lull in the calendar in part to replenish his campaign war chest. But he has political needs, as well, despite his commanding position in the race for the nomination. He still suffers from lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy, especially among the most conservative of Republicans.
Beginning to win over those voters and consolidating the party will be his most important objectives.At the same time, Romney plans to use February to flesh out some of his policy positions. His image has been hurt by a month of attacks from Gingrich, a super PAC backing the former speaker and by the Democrats. They have focused on his work at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded, which became the source of his personal fortune.
Verbal miscues by the candidate have contributed to questions about just whom he stands for and whom his policies would help. Romney earlier laid out a detailed economic plan, but some Republicans have said he needs something simpler and bolder to draw clearer distinctions with President Obama and excite his party.
Santorum told CNN Saturday night he doesn’t see an obvious victory in the next few states but nonetheless argued that he would make the strongest nominee against Obama. “This race is a long, long way from being over,” he said. “People are going to start looking at this race and they’re going to see that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich don’t have what it takes to win the general election…. Eventually this race will come to us.”
Those entrance polls also showed that the economy was the dominant issue for caucus attendees on Saturday, not surprising in a state with an unemployment rate of 12.6 percent and one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. At the same time, a strong plurality of voters said the most important quality they were looking for in a candidate was someone who could defeat the president in November. Romney won overwhelmingly with both groups.
In contrast to some previous states, Romney won among the most conservative voters in Nevada as well as among those who strongly support the tea party movement. Among those who said they were looking for a true conservative as their nominee, Romney ran fourth, but they accounted for fewer than one in five caucus goers.
The publicity highlight of Romney’s four-day campaign in Nevada came Thursday when he was endorsed by billionaire Donald Trump, at an event held at Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas. Though the value of that endorsement was questionable, Trump choreographed it for maximum attention. The Trump endorsement came on a day when Romney was trying to repair the damage from a statement he made the morning after the Florida primary in which he suggested that he was not concerned about the plight of the poor. Romney had said much the same in earlier settings but more deftly. He eventually said he had misspoken, though it took a full day for him to do so.
He said that what he was trying to say was that there are programs to help the poor and that he would see to it that they work, but that he was particularly worried about middle-class Americans who have been hard hit by the recession and for whom there is no safety net. None of his rivals was able to take advantage of the misstep, though Gingrich tried. At two events Friday, he accused Romney of embracing a government safety net as an effective way to fight poverty. “It isn’t a safety net, it’s a spider web,” he said, adding that such programs create dependency.
Romney was aided this week by the fact that Gingrich, who has been trying to make the GOP race a two-person contest, was beset by internal disorganization as he tried to regroup from his Florida defeat. Gingrich still appeared angry over the attacks Romney and his super PAC leveled at him in Florida. In an interview Friday on CNN he described those tactics as “reprehensible . . . dishonest . . . shameful.”
At an event Friday night at the International Church of Las Vegas, he said, “I am ashamed of the negativity and dishonesty of this campaign.” Gingrich was trying to convince donors and supporters that he has a viable path for winning the nomination.
As Nevadans were voting Saturday, the candidates were campaigning elsewhere. Paul was in Minnesota while Santorum and Romney were in Colorado.
Virtually all caucuses were finished by midafternoon, Nevada time. But in Clark County, which includes the big population center of Las Vegas, one caucus was scheduled to begin after sundown to give Orthodox Jews an opportunity to participate. The late opening of that caucus delayed the results from the other caucuses in the county and, because the polls were still open in that precinct, prevented news organizations from calling the race until late Saturday night.
Read more at The Washington Post.