LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney secured an overwhelming victory in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, giving the former Massachusetts governor his second consecutive win 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 on Tuesday, Romney’s win in Nevada, where he also emerged on top 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.
Turnout was far below that of the primaries in Florida, South Carolina or New Hampshire and less than in Iowa’s caucuses.
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. Counting in Clark County was extremely slow late Saturday, delaying final results.
Addressing cheering supporters in Las Vegas, Romney largely ignored his opponents and focused on President Obama’s handling of the economy. “America needs a president who can fix the economy because he understands the economy,” he said. “I do and I will. This president began his presidency by apologizing for America. He should now be apologizing to America.”
As Romney celebrated his third victory in five contests, his rivals vowed to continue fighting. Gingrich spoke to reporters, forgoing the traditional post-election rally. “We will continue the campaign all the way to Tampa,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to withdraw.” Then, in an extraordinary performance, Gingrich spent much of the rest of his news conference denouncing Romney in harsh and personal terms, signaling a rough ride ahead for the party.
Santorum, meanwhile, said Saturday night that he would make the strongest nominee against Obama. “This race is a long, long way from being over,” he told CNN, adding, “Eventually this race will come to us.”
But the calendar provides those chasing Romney with 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 March 6, this year’s Super Tuesday.
Romney is favored in Colorado on Tuesday, whereas 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 Obama and excite his party.
As Romney deals with those problems, his rivals will continue to look for any way possible to try to consolidate whatever anti-Romney forces exist and keep the race going as long as possible. Despite Romney’s strong position, it will take him months to accumulate enough delegates to claim the nomination.
Paul told CNN that Romney was always a prohibitive favorite in Nevada. “I think that everybody does recognize that the Mormon vote is significant,” he said. He added that he is beginning to accumulate delegates and said that even if he wanted to drop out, “there would be a strong rebellion with my friends.”
Entrance polls showed that Mormons accounted for about a quarter of the caucus electorate, and Romney — who is Mormon — won about nine in 10 of those voters.
Those entrance polls also showed that the economy was the dominant issue for caucus attendees, not surprising in a state with an unemployment rate of 12.6 percent and one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. 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 less than one in five caucus attendees.
On a weekend when the Super Bowl drew thousands of tourists and gamblers to the bright lights and the casinos of the Las Vegas Strip, thousands of Nevada residents turned out in more prosaic venues — schools, fire stations, community centers and churches — to cast votes in the fifth contest of the Republican nomination battle.
The voting came after a relatively quiet four-day campaign among the four remaining candidates. The campaign here had only a few of the rhetorical fireworks that marked earlier contests and captured far less voter attention. Much of that had to do with the fact that Romney was the overwhelming favorite here, having won the caucuses four years ago with 51 percent of the vote.
The publicity highlight of Romney’s four-day campaign in Nevada came Thursday when he was endorsed by billionaire Donald Trump, at an event 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 hit hard 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 a 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.
The other two candidates, Paul and Santorum, promise to keep going no matter the results. Paul, who finished fourth in South Carolina and Florida, had a more elaborate grass-roots organization in Nevada than Gingrich and was hoping to leverage that into a second-place finish.
Santorum pledged to keep fighting, saying that he should be the conservative alternative to Romney rather than Gingrich. In addition to the caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, he pointed to the non-binding contest in Missouri, where Gingrich is not on the ballot.
As Nevadans were voting, the candidates campaigned elsewhere. Paul was in Minnesota, Santorum and Romney in Colorado.
Romney flew from Las Vegas to Colorado Springs for a rally before returning to celebrate. He said he was delighted at the jobs report Friday that showed unemployment down to 8.3 percent. But he said Obama doesn’t deserve praise for the improvement.
“He’s celebrating that it’s at 8.3,” Romney said at an appearance at a metal fabricating factory. “That’s still above the emergency line of 8 percent. And, by the way, he doesn’t get credit for things getting better. I’m delighted things are getting better. But the people who deserve credit for making things better are people like Tom [owner of the metal fabrication factory] who build a place like this and employ people in this great state.”
Virtually all caucuses were finished by mid-afternoon, Nevada time. But in Clark County, which includes the population center of Las Vegas, one caucus was scheduled to begin after sundown to give Orthodox Jews an opportunity to participate. The late opening and slow counting of that caucus delayed the final results from the other caucuses in the county.
Staff writers Amy Gardner and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.