Brian Snyder / Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney takes the stage at a campaign rally in Reno, Nevada February 2, 2012.
Updated at 1:05p.m. ET
Republican front-runner Mitt Romney seemed poised to pick up another state in the race to challenge President Barack Obama this fall, as candidates made a last push Friday before the caucuses in Nevada this weekend.
While Romney narrows his focus on Obama and the economy — by far the most important election issue this year — the president got welcome news Friday, as the Labor Department said the country's unemployment rate dropped to 8.3 percent from 8.5 percent in December, the lowest in nearly three years.
Lower unemployment is a positive a sign for Obama's hopes for a second term. Still, he's likely to face voters with the highest unemployment rate of any post-war president.
"There are still far too many Americans who need a job ... but the economy is growing stronger. The recovery is speeding up. And we need to do everything in our power to keep it going," Obama said Friday.
In remarks later Friday, Romney said about 24 million Americans are still looking for work. "We're the strongest economy in the world and people have suffered enough, I think unnecessarily," he said.
Romney, a Mormon with close ties to church leaders, is expected to carry an overwhelming majority of votes Saturday from Nevada members of the church. Roughly 7 percent of Nevada's population is Mormon, but they carry more clout than that because they turn out in such high numbers. Nearly a quarter of all 2008 Republican presidential caucus voters in Nevada were Mormon, and roughly nine in 10 backed Romney then.
A final day of campaigning in Nevada for Romney, closest challenger Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul followed a carvival-like day in which real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump stole the spotlight with a surprise endorsement for Romney. The news came after Gingrich's campaign mistakenly leaked word that he, not Romney, would get the backing.
Amid the glitter of Las Vegas casinos, Trump declared that Romney, whom he often criticized in the past, is "not going to allow bad things to continue to happen to this country we all love." The endorsement wasn't expected to have much sway on Republican voters, but it was a shot of publicity for a race that has seen a dizzying range of candidates rise and fall.
Romney said he was glad to get the support, but he seemed almost bemused to be caught up in the drama.
"There are some things you just can't imagine happening. This is one of them," Romney said with a smile.
Romney is already the clear Republican front-runner after a convincing win in the Florida primary this week, pulling 46.4 percent in the state compared with 31.9 percent for Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, his closest rival.
The race is now moving to more western states that could be more friendly to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has been hit in recent weeks with concerns over his multimillionaire status and his sometimes tone-deaf comments about the poor.
Whereas Romney's faith was widely viewed nationally as a liability in 2008, running as a Mormon in the West guarantees a built-in voting bloc. Nearly 2.9 million members of the church live in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, California and Arizona. In contrast, there are barely 206,000 Mormons in the first four Republican voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, according to church estimates.
Even Mormon Democrats in Nevada claim Romney as a point of pride.
"The LDS church has the same affinity toward Mitt Romney as African-Americans feel toward President Obama," said Democratic state Sen. John Lee, referring to the church's full name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "We don't look at him as the governor from Massachusetts. We don't look at him as the leader who saved the Olympics. We look at him as a man who knows what the values of our church are."
The church stresses political engagement, urging its members to "play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections," according to its website.
The libertarian Texas Rep. Paul, who took second in Nevada in 2008, has been courting Mormon voters for months, setting up a "Latter Day Saints for Ron Paul" Facebook page, holding special phone bank hours aimed at registered Republican Mormon voters and sending out frequent campaign emails highlighting his Mormon volunteers.
Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Santorum, who only recently launched campaign operations in Nevada, have done little to appeal directly to church members. But their religious values — both are Catholics — could serve as a common ground with some Mormon voters who revere family and faith.