LAS VEGAS — Across Nevada on Saturday, Republicans began trickling in to schools, community centers and churches to take part in local caucuses in the first Western contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
There is little suspense about the outcome — with a strong state organization and an electorate that includes many Mormon supporters, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is widely expected to sweep the state and win most of its 28 delegates.
But the magnitude of Romney’s likely win will help determine the strength of his momentum heading into a series of smaller-state contests this month, including caucuses Tuesday in Colorado and Minnesota.
Romney’s aim is to rack up a series of small wins in February that will make victory appear inevitable for him as the campaigns head into Super Tuesday on March 6, the race’s next critical date, when 10 states will hold contests.
Local caucuses occurred at different times across Nevada on Saturday. Some began as early as 9 a.m. All but one caucus site was expected to conclude by 3 p.m. — a location in the Las Vegas area took place after sundown, to allow Orthodox Jews and others who observe a Saturday sabbath to take part.
Results will probably dribble out over the course of the day — early unofficial reports from some caucus locations have already landed, each suggesting few surprises, with Romney dominating vote totals. The Nevada GOP has indicated it will begin tweeting official results — a technological electoral first — at 5 p.m.
Coming off Romney’s 14-point victory over former House speaker Newt Gingrich in the Florida primary late last month, a win would hand Romney the first back-to-back victories in the year’s topsy-turvy Republican race.
Gingrich, meanwhile, was still hoping for a competitive finish, to show that his campaign continues to draw support from conservatives displeased with the notion of a Romney nomination. It was that scenario that allowed Gingrich to soundly defeat Romney in the South Carolina primary, but it is unlikely to repeat here.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, whose campaign has lagged since his unexpected victory in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, has been arguing that Gingrich lost his chance to be the alternative to Romney with a poor showing in Florida.
He’s looking for opportunities to outperform Gingrich so he can get a clear shot at challenging Romney. His has focused more attention Tuesday’s caucuses and on the non-binding primary in Missouri the same day but is still hoping for a respectable showing in Nevada.
And Rep. Ron Paul of Texas hopes to demonstrate that his dedicated and organized supporters can make a strong showing in a state where low turnout is anticipated and where he ran a distant second to Romney in 2008. He has invested considerable time and money in Nevada and other caucus states, where organization is key.
With a victory seemingly likely in the Nevada, Romney flew to Colorado Springs on Saturday afternoon to exhort a large crowd of supporters to help him get President Obama “out of the way.”
He will return to Las Vegas for an evening election party but has been splitting his focus between Nevada and the next contests in Colorado and Minnesota.
Introduced by Sen. John Thune (S.D.) and joined by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah) and former Utah governor Mike Leavitt, Romney concentrated on Obama in remarks to a crowd of more than 700 people at a metal fabrication plant. He argued that Obama deserves no credit for any economic improvement shown in Friday’s jobs report.
“He’s celebrating that it’s at 8.3,” Romney said of the unemployment rate in that report. “That’s still above the emergency l ine of 8 percent.”
On Friday night, Romney told about 150 campaign supporters in Las Vegas making calls from donated office space that he expected his campaign’s superior state organization in Nevada would be key.
“It’s going to be a great showing, I think, tomorrow,” Romney told the group, after indicating that he thought volunteers had made 20,000 calls to potential Nevada caucus-goers.
“You’ve touched a lot of people’s homes and that’s going to make people go out to the polls and go out to the caucuses,” he said.
Gingrich — whose light Nevada schedule has been interpreted as a sign of campaign disorganization in the Western state — had no campaign stops planned until an evening party.
Santorum is holding three campaign stops in Colorado on Saturday and plans on Sunday to tour the factory where his campaign’s now-trademark sweater vests are stitched.
He has been stepping up his critique of Gingrich in recent days and at a campaign stop early Saturday, joking to a crowd that he hopes to “endanger” the former speaker in coming races.
“We’ll make sure that you don’t do something to scar the land or endanger a newt,” Santorum said on Colorado’s Western Slope according to the Associated Press, as he blamed Washington for imposing too many environmental regulations.
“No, not that newt. I want to endanger that Newt. That’s a different story,” he cracked.
He insisted Colorado is a “wide-open” race and could reset the Republican contest.
Paul, who finished second to Romney in Nevada in 2008, spent the day in Minnesota.