RENO, Nev. — The Republican presidential field heads west to Nevada this week facing a single dominant question: Can anything or anyone block Mitt Romney’s path to the GOP presidential nomination, particularly given his resounding win here four years ago?
Romney has the best organization of any of the remaining candidates, and he has spent plenty of time here since 2008. He will arrive with momentum from his decisive win in Florida on Tuesday, and Nevada’s sizable Mormon population gives him an edge, too.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney sang "America the Beautiful" at a campaign rally in The Villages, Fla.
Pre-game analysis: The GOP presidential field heads to Nevada for its “first in the west” caucuses on Feb. 4.
In 2008, Romney won 51 percent of the vote, and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) finished second with 13 percent.
But Nevada is not without advantages for the other candidates. Saturday’s “first in the West” caucuses are expected to favor campaigns with loyal supporters willing to trudge out to a caucus meeting on a weekend morning. This year, that helps Paul, who has been developing solid organizations in all the caucus states to turn out supporters, and his organization is significantly stronger today than it was four years ago.
Newt Gingrich is betting on a wild card here, the tea party movement. Tea party sentiment is strong in the state and helped nominate Sharron Angle two years ago in a primary to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D). Gingrich is playing an underdog’s game of catch-up in Nevada. He has little money in the bank and only began investing here a few weeks ago. But he boasts another noteworthy asset: billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, a top supporter who has given a pro-Gingrich group $10 million and is being closely watched to see whether more is on the way.
The backdrop for all of this is that Nevada is a critical swing state that has marched through much of the Obama years with the nation’s highest unemployment and foreclosure rates. The area around Las Vegas, home to three-quarters of Nevadans, is a bastion of independent voters who resoundingly chose President Obama four years ago. The eventual Republican nominee must not only beat his GOP rivals Saturday but also reach out to these critical voters, many of them disaffected by the current administration.
“Two-thirds of this country believe America is worse off than when President Obama took office,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who most recently worked for a PAC supporting Jon Huntsman Jr. “In some ways the voters in Nevada are a microcosm of President Obama’s problem. They bought into this hope-and-change malarkey, and now all they see is that the economy has gotten worse.”
Despite that, Nevada caucus-goers are anything but a microcosm of the general electorate. In 2008, 44,000 Republicans, or less than 1 percent of the electorate, attended Nevada caucus meetings. And Republicans are not optimistic that turnout will be much higher this year. The Nevada GOP has done little to spread the word about the caucuses, and Nevadans, unlike voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, are less familiar with their new electoral ritual, which was moved to the top of the presidential calendar only four years ago.