LAS VEGAS – Republicans in Nevada are poised to do what no one has yet done in the 2012 Republican presidential campaign: sustain momentum.
Their caucuses today are likely to deliver a solid victory to Mitt Romney. That would mark the first time this year that a presidential candidate has won two states in a row.
After taking Florida on Tuesday by a wide margin, a decisive Nevada win would send Romney rushing into the rest of February with wins in three out of the first five voting states and a commanding lead toward winning the Republican presidential nomination.
He still has to defeat former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
But the political landscape in Nevada favors the former Massachusetts governor. Polls show him with a big lead, thanks in part to a large population of his fellow Mormons. And interviews with Republican voters suggest that they’re not surging to Gingrich, they like Santorum but think him too tame to take on President Barack Obama, and even some Paul supporters have doubts about him as a general election candidate.
Key for almost every Republican in Nevada: finding the champion who can defeat Obama and turn the government and economy in a different direction. This state has the nation’s highest unemployment and one of the worst housing markets.
The caucuses will award 28 delegates, divided proportionately among the candidates based on their support.
To many, Romney’s experience in business and in turning around the Olympics make him the go-to guy.
“This fiscal crisis didn’t happen overnight and it’s going to take a lot to turn it around,” said Diana Roy, of Las Vegas, who works for a mortgage company after being out of work for two years. “We need someone with management experience. A professional.”
To others, Gingrich’s experience leading the Republicans to power in the House of Representatives in 1994 after 40 years in the minority and his work there as speaker make him the only one who could get things through Congress.
“He dealt with government,” said Dale Mellen, a retiree from Las Vegas. “You need to know how the system works to get the economy working, to get the country back where we should be.”
Santorum, who’s pitched himself as an issues-oriented conservative, has struck a chord with Republicans weary of the personal attacks between Romney and Gingrich.
Paul hopes to score well in the caucuses, where turnout is typically light because voters must participate in meetings rather than merely cast a ballot, which tends to reward candidates such as Paul who have passionate supporters.