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Romney wins Nevada caucus, solidifying momentum

Reacting to his projected win in the Nevada Caucuses, Mitt Romney talks to supporters about the "misguided policies" and "broken promises" of the Obama administration and that with his campaign, "things must get better."


Updated at 11:23 p.m.

In winning the Nevada Republican caucuses, Mitt Romney added another victory in a campaign built on organization and momentum.  And the former Massachusetts governor wasted no time in looking ahead to the potential contest with President Obama. 

As expected, Romney won Nevada easily with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul jostling for second place and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum far behind.

The victory for Romney marks his second this week, following a similarly decisive win on Tuesday in Florida's Republican primary. A win in the Nevada caucuses, while expected, gives Romney added momentum for his campaign, and a new piece of evidence to support the sense that Romney is the GOP's emerging front-runner to face off against President Obama in November. 

After the win, Romney quickly turned his attention to Obama (and not his GOP foes) in remarks before an especially boisterous crowd Saturday night in Las Vegas.

"This president began his term by apologizing for America. He should now be apologizing to America!" Romney said. "America needs a president who can fix the economy because he understands the economy. I do, and I will."

In Nevada, Romney won the caucuses convincingly, winning almost every age and income group, and, more importantly, with healthy margins of support from moderate and conservative Republicans alike. 

While last week's Florida's primary results contained some warning signs for Romney — namely, his inability to win over the core, conservative part of the GOP — Saturday's caucus reflect an instance in which Romney was able to rally conservatives to his candidacy. 

Nevada caucus-goers who described themselves as "very conservative" made up almost half of the electorate. Romney won about half of them, while his competitors split the rest. Romney performed even better with caucus-goers who described themselves as "somewhat conservative."

In that sense, Nevada offered Romney his most convincing argument in support of his ability to rally Republicans of all stripes.

 Romney's prime opponent in the race, Gingrich, had campaigned throughout Nevada this week making the argument that Romney was too moderate to unite the GOP and effectively fight Obama. 

Romney was bolstered, as he was when he won the state in 2008, by Nevada's Mormon population. According to entrance poll data, about a quarter of caucus-goers on Saturday identified themselves as Mormon. Those voters broke overwhelmingly — roughly nine in 10 of them — for Romney.

Romney's win in Nevada also carries a degree of symbolic importance. The contest is the first in the West during the GOP primary, and Nevada — like Florida and New Hampshire — is decidedly a swing state in 2012, a state that Obama had won in 2008.

Romney's Florida win helped him reclaim his status as the putative frontrunner in the Republican campaign, a status that had come under threat just 14 days ago in South Carolina, where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rallied conservatives and scored a major upset victory in that state's primary. 

Gingrich sought to dispel any notion, though, that the primary was anywhere close to over.

"I am a candidate for president of the United States. I will be a candidate for president of the United States. We will go to Tampa," he said at a press conference. 

The former speaker said that he would move on to Colorado and then Minnesota before decamping to Ohio, one of the largest Super Tuesday states. 

"I'm not going to withdraw," Gingrich said, blaming Romney's team for rumors that he would drop out. "I'm actually pretty happy with where we are."

But Romney's bigger organization has left little to chance as the campaign goes on and that was evidenced in Nevada.  Having made frequent visits to the state last year — one in April to tour a foreclosed neighborhood and stoke speculation about his candidacy, and another in May shortly after the Romney campaign had launched to raise over $1 million in a "national call day."

Romney's been equally aggressive in the past few days, too, his campaign pressing the case against Gingrich, and touring Nevada with a number of events. 

But the path between victories in Florida and Nevada have not been the smoothest for Romney. 

The day after winning in Florida, Romney drew intense scrutiny for saying in a CNN interview that he is "not concerned about the very poor" as the focus of his campaign. 

"I misspoke. I've said something that is similar to that but quite acceptable for a long time. And you know when you do I don't know how many thousands of interviews now and then you may get it wrong. And I misspoke. Plain and simple," Romney told Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston later this week in a bid for damage control. 

Romney also appeared publicly with Donald Trump, the bombastic billionaire, to receive an endorsement from the reality TV star that had dubious value in the Republican Party, and had more Democratic tongues wagging than anything else. 

"A man who hasn't worked in 10 years, has his money in the Cayman Islands and in Switzerland, and is talking about the poor people have a safety net?" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada's top Democrat, said of Romney's comments in an interview to air Sunday on Univision. 

The Democratic National Committee also gleefully pounced, producing a web video about Trump and Romney's appearance together. 

Democrats are particularly mindful that Nevada, a state hard hit by the collapse of the housing market, could be a general election battleground in 2012. President Obama beat Sen. John McCain by about 6 points there in 2008, but Romney, if nominated, is hoping to make a better showing there this November. 

While the primary race goes on for Republicans, new questions have arisen about the future of Gingirch's efforts.

The former speaker is in need of the financial resources needed to wage a full campaign and the New York Times reported in its Sunday edition that Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate who had donated $10 million to a super PAC that supports Gingrich — sustaining the former speaker's campaign almost by itself — is now open to backing Romney as the GOP nominee.

Gingrich is slated to appear Sunday on "Meet the Press" and other public affairs shows throughout the morning, where he'll almost certainly be forced to answer questions about the viability of his campaign.

Paul and Santorum seemed poised to continue their candidacies, as well. Paul skipped the Florida primary to focus on caucuses like Nevada's, where his enthusiastic, organized corps of supporters tend to make a better showing than in primaries. Nevada's outcome could be a key test of Paul's ability to accrue delegates. 

Santorum, meanwhile, has been busy campaigning in Colorado, which, along with Minnesota, hosts a caucus on Tuesday. Romney is also favored in those states, though their more minor stature in the nominating calendar arguably offers the three other Republicans their best chance of upsetting Romney.

The campaign enters a relatively dead period after Tuesday until the end of February, when Arizona and Michigan host their primaries. Romney, having grown up in Michigan, where his father served as governor, is heavily favored in that contest. 

The biggest test, then, follows on March 6 — this cycle's "Super Tuesday — which features a number of large primaries, including some more Southern and conservative contests in which Gingrich might have his best shot at parrying Romney's march to the nomination.