Romney Looks to Build Front-Runner Status in Nevada Caucuses

Mitt Romney looked to solidify his front-runner status in the race for the Republican presidential nomination today with a win in today’s Nevada’s caucuses, with early results showing him ahead.

Romney had 39 percent of the vote, with 8 percent of the precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press tally. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 25 percent, followed by U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas with 22 percent and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania with 13 percent.

Signaling confidence about his prospects in Nevada, Romney left the state today for a rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He flew back to Las Vegas to await the Nevada results.

Gingrich is seeking a better-than-expected showing in a contest that comes four days after the former Massachusetts governor beat him by 14 percentage points in Florida’s primary.

Gingrich, who lightened his campaign schedule in Nevada to make more time for fundraising calls needed to keep his campaign alive, has sought to exploit a comment Romney made the morning after his Jan. 31 Florida victory that the “very poor” don’t concern him because they get assistance from various federal programs.

Colorado Speech

In Colorado, Romney addressed a crowd at a metal-works factory. He made little mention of his Republican rivals, focusing instead on President Barack Obama’s economic policy -- including the $825 billion stimulus package passed in early 2009 designed to stave off a severe recession.

“He said if he borrowed that money he would be able to hold unemployment at below eight percent,” Romney said. “It has not been below 8 percent since. And he’s celebrating that it’s at 8.3,” a reference to the latest for January released yesterday.

As Romney spoke, a large video screen to his right displayed directions detailing on how to vote in Colorado’s Feb. 7 caucuses.

Political observers will be watching to see if Romney can top the 51 percent he scored in Nevada’s 2008 caucuses during his failed nomination bid that year. Entrance polls four years ago showed 26 percent of Nevada’s Republican caucus-goers were Mormon, like Romney, and he won 95 percent of that vote.

Paul and Santorum were also trying to generate momentum in the typically lightly attended caucus meetings where casting a vote takes more time than casting a ballot.

Right Tone

Romney sought to find the right campaign tone amid signs of an improving U.S. economy.

In the report released yesterday, the U.S. unemployment rate of 8.3 percent for January was the lowest in three years as payrolls climbed more than forecast. The 243,000 increase in jobs was the biggest in nine months and exceeded all forecasts in a Bloomberg News survey.

“This president has not helped the process; he’s hurt it,” Romney told 14 local businessmen he met with yesterday in Sparks, Nevada. “If I’m the president, I will see what you do as being a very good thing, a patriotic and good thing.”

The economy “has taken a lot longer than it should have to come back, in part because of the policies of this administration,” Romney said. “For that, the president deserves the blame that he’ll receive in this campaign.”

November Battleground

The Nevada contest played out in a state that is seen by political analysts as a battleground in November’s general election. That means the Republican nominee is likely to return to the state repeatedly later this year.

Nevada (STEHNV) had the nation’s highest unemployment rate, 12.6 percent, in December. For the fifth straight year, the state also had the highest rate of home foreclosure filings in 2011, according to RealtyTrac Inc., a data seller in Irvine, California.

Speaking to several hundred people at a rally yesterday inside an airport hangar in Elko, Nevada, Romney charged that Obama has “failed the American people.”

Fred Weeks, 67, a geography and government teacher from Spring Creek, Nevada, said it impressed him that Romney visited the state’s sparsely populated northeast corner.

“It shows he cares,” Weeks said. “We’ve got to get Obama out of office and Romney probably has the best chance.”

Besides Nevada, five other states hold nominating contests in February, including caucuses in Maine that start this weekend. Caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7 are followed by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28. A non- binding primary will be held Feb. 7 in Missouri, with delegate allocation will be based on the state’s caucuses in March.

At a campaign event in Las Vegas yesterday, Gingrich criticized Obama as an impediment to an economic rebound. He cited as an example the president’s rejection earlier this month of a permit for TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline.

In an interview on CNN, Gingrich said of Obama that, if the economy “gets better and better and better between now and the election, he will get some credit. On the other hand, if this is a lull before it starts getting worse, his re-election will be in enormous trouble.”

Growing Stronger

Obama, in remarks yesterday in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, said the jobs data show “the economy is growing stronger,” and the recovery “is speeding up.”

Paul, who finished a distant second to Romney in Nevada in 2008, has been trying to capitalize on the loyalty of an active volunteer base that his campaign believes will help him in the caucus states. He also has targeted gun owners, veterans and people who home-school their children, and sought to persuade Mormons that he, not Romney, better represents their view of the Constitution.

Paul is campaigning today in Minnesota.

Romney dominated his rivals in television advertising in Nevada. His campaign spent an estimated $488,460 on broadcast ads there through Feb. 2, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. One ad attacks Gingrich as a “D.C. insider” who “cashed in” after leaving the speakership “in disgrace.”

Restore Our Future, a political committee that is independently supporting Romney’s campaign, spent $73,240 through Feb. 2 on an ad that accuses Gingrich of exaggerating his ties to former President Ronald Reagan.

Paul, who finished second to Romney in the 2008 Nevada caucuses, spent $158,590 to air ads last summer and again in late January.

Gingrich and Santorum and their allied political committees didn’t air broadcast TV ads in Nevada.

To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Las Vegas, Nevada, at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net; Lisa Lerer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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