Feb. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney won yesterday’s Nevada caucuses, solidifying his front-runner status in the Republican presidential race and gaining fresh momentum heading into a series of state contests over the next month, even as his main rival vowed to continue fighting.
Romney now has won three of the first five nomination contests and maintains financial and organizational advantages over his three remaining rivals.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been his main competitor, last night dismissed any suggestion he is close to ending his candidacy, calling such speculation the “greatest fantasy” on the part of the Romney campaign.
Romney had 48 percent of the vote, with 71 percent of precincts reporting, according to an Associated Press tally today. Gingrich had 23 percent, followed by U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas with 19 percent and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania with 11 percent.
“Thank you, Nevada,” Romney told supporters gathered for his victory celebration last night at a Las Vegas resort and casino.
“This is not the first time you gave me your vote of confidence and this time I’m going to take it to the White House,” the former Massachusetts governor said, referring to his 2008 caucus victory in Nevada during his failed bid for his party’s nomination.
Romney, 64, focused his speech on President Barack Obama, who he said didn’t deserve credit for a decline in the U.S. unemployment rate to 8.3 percent in January, the lowest in three years, from 8.5 percent in December.
“Mr. President, we welcome any good news on the jobs front,” Romney said. “But it is thanks to the innovation of the American people in the private sector and not to you.”
Gingrich, 68, speaking at a news conference in Las Vegas after Romney’s appearance, pledged to campaign all the way to the party’s national convention in Tampa, Florida, in August.
“There are some very big differences evolving in this campaign as we move forward,” he said. “I also believe that the vast majority of Republicans across the country are going to want an alternative to a Massachusetts moderate who has in his career been pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase.”
‘Dishonest’ in Debate
While saying he planned “a series of positive speeches” as he goes forward, he also laced into Romney. He termed his rival “substantially dishonest” in a Jan. 26 debate in Jacksonville, Florida, in which Romney attacked Gingrich repeatedly.
“If you can’t tell the truth as a candidate for president, how can the country possibly expect you to lead as president?” Gingrich asked.
He will respond to Romney as the campaign proceeds “much” differently, Gingrich said, without providing details. He said by the next debate, he would have “mechanisms” to challenge Romney on false claims.
Also working against Gingrich is a decrease in nationally televised debates, forums that helped boost his candidacy. So far in February, just one debate is scheduled, making it harder for Gingrich to keep his name in front of the media and voters.
Gingrich last night repeatedly sought to link Romney to billionaire George Soros, who in the past has been a major financier of Democratic causes and candidates, including Obama.
Soros, who has expressed ambivalence about a second term for Obama, said in a Reuters interview in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 25 that if the 2012 contest were between the president and Romney, “there isn’t that much difference, except for the crowd that they bring with him.”
Gingrich said last night he doubted voters wanted a general election contest featuring “two George Soros-approved candidates.”
He also called it “bizarre” that the coach who helped Romney improve his debate performance in two forums leading up to the Jan. 31 Florida primary is no longer working for the campaign. No reason was given for the departure of Brett O’Donnell, the Associated Press reported.
Discussing the Nevada contest, Gingrich said Romney benefited from running in a “heavily Mormon state.”
Entrance polls showed 26 percent of the Republican caucus-goers were Mormons, as is Romney, and he won 91 percent of that vote. The polling also showed he won support from three-quarters of those who listed the ability to beat Obama in November’s general election as the most important candidate quality for them, a group that was 44 percent of the electorate.
Two in a Row
Romney became the first candidate in the Republican race to win two states in a row, with the Nevada victory following his 14-percentage-point triumph over Gingrich in the Florida primary. His Nevada vote was running behind the 51 percent he won in the 2008 caucuses.
Gingrich scaled back his campaign schedule in Nevada to make more time for fundraising calls. He will need more money to keep his campaign fueled through early March, when there are contests in southern states where he may have greater appeal because he once represented Georgia in Congress.
At the end of 2011, Romney reported having $20 million in his campaign bank account, while Gingrich had $2.1 million as well as $1.2 million in reported debts.
Gingrich has remained viable in part because of $10 million contributed to a political action committee supporting his candidacy by Sheldon Adelson and his wife. Adelson, a casino executive based in Las Vegas, hasn’t said whether he plans to make additional donations.
The New York Times reported that Adelson has assured Romney’s campaign he will provide even more financial support for his effort, should he become the nominee. Phone calls and e-mails to an Adelson aide weren’t immediately returned.
Asked about the report, Gingrich said it made sense Adelson would support Romney as the Republican standard-bearer.
“Look, Sheldon’s primary driving force is the survival of the United States and Israel in the face of an Iranian nuclear weapon,” he said. “And compared to Barack Obama, virtually anybody is a better candidate. So that does not bother me at all.”
Following Nevada, there are five nomination contests in February, including caucuses in Maine that started this weekend and will culminate later this week. 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 based on the state’s caucuses in March.
The primaries at February’s end will garner the most attention because of the size of Michigan, the nation’s eighth most populous state, and Arizona, the 16th. Romney has potential advantages in both states.
Born in Michigan, he was raised in a Detroit suburb and his father, George, served as the state’s governor. The tough stance Mitt Romney has taken on combating illegal immigration should help in Arizona, where Republican officials pushed into law a crackdown measure that the federal government is suing to block.
The 11 primaries and caucuses on March 6 are known as Super Tuesday because of the more than 400 delegates at stake. At least 1,144 delegates are needed to win the nomination.
Gingrich, along with Santorum, failed to meet the qualification requirements to appear on Virginia’s March 6 primary ballot, so that’s one state where they won’t compete.
Many of the contests will award delegates on a proportional basis, rather than winner-take-all as was the case in Florida, which gives Romney’s rivals an incentive to stay in the race.
Romney won the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary, then lost South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary to Gingrich. Santorum beat Romney by 34 votes in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
Signaling confidence about his prospects in Nevada, Romney left the state yesterday for a rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado, before flying back to Las Vegas to await the results.
Romney dominated his rivals in television advertising in Nevada. His campaign spent about $488,460 on broadcast ads in the state through Feb. 2, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. Restore Our Future, a political super-committee that is independently supporting Romney’s campaign, spent $73,240 through Feb. 2.
Paul, who finished second to Romney in the 2008 Nevada caucuses, spent $158,590 to air ads last summer and again in late January in the state. Gingrich and Santorum and their allied political committees didn’t air broadcast ads in Nevada.
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