Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney cruised to victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday night, notching a second straight triumph over a field of rivals suddenly struggling to keep pace.
The caucuses drew little attention in the nominating campaign, but Nevada figures to be a fierce battleground in November between the winner of the Republican nomination and Democrat President Barack Obama. The state's unemployment rate was measured at 12.6 percent in December, the worst in the U.S.
Romney unleashed a sharp attack on Obama, whose economic policies he said have "made these tough times last longer."
"President Obama seems to believe America's role as leader in the world is a thing of the past. I believe the 21st century will be and must be an American century," Romney said to cheers from his backers.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, held a double-digit lead over his nearest pursuer as the totals mounted in a state where fellow Mormons accounted for roughly a quarter of all caucus-goers.
Romney wins Nevada
Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul vied for a distant second. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum trailed the field. Returns from 14 of 17 counties showed Romney with 42 percent support, Gingrich with 25 percent, Paul with 20 percent and Santorum with 13 percent.
Yet to report its results was Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and often accounts for half or more of the votes in a statewide election.
Romney's victory capped a week that began with his double-digit win in the Florida primary. That contest was as intense as Nevada's caucuses were sedate - so quiet that they produced little television advertising, no candidate debates and only a modest investment of time by the contenders.
According to the AP count, Romney began the day with 87 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination. Gingrich had 26, Santorum 14 and Paul 4.
Preliminary results of a poll of Nevada Republicans entering their caucuses showed that nearly half said the most important consideration in their decision was a candidate's ability to defeat Obama this fall, a finding in line with other states.
About one-quarter of those surveyed said they are Mormon, roughly the same as in 2008, when Romney won with more than a majority of the vote in a multi-candidate field.
The entrance poll was conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press
at 25 randomly selected caucus sites. It included 1,553 interviews and had a
margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
A total of 28 delegates were at stake in the state-by-state race to lock up the 1,144 needed to secure the Republican nomination.
Nevada awarded its delegates in proportion to the caucus vote totals, meaning that any candidate who captured at least 3.57 percent of the total number of ballots cast would be rewarded. By contrast, Romney's victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday netted him all 50 of the delegates at stake there.
From Nevada, the calendar turns to caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and a non-binding primary in Missouri on Tuesday.
Maine caucuses end next Saturday, and the next seriously contested states are expected to be primaries in Michigan and Arizona on Feb. 28.
Nevada caucuses, coming four days after the Florida primary, meant little time for the type of intense campaign that characterized the first month of the race.
The most memorable event of the four-day Nevada campaign was an endorsement that flamboyant billionaire Donald Trump bestowed on Romney in Las Vegas in a circus-like atmosphere that followed reports he would back Gingrich.
By the time Nevada Republicans caucused, Paul was campaigning in Minnesota, Santorum in Colorado.
His Florida victory in hand, Romney was acting like a front-runner again, campaigning against Obama more than Gingrich. Restore Our Future took on the former speaker, airing ads that said he consistently overstated his connections to Ronald Reagan.
In defeat, Gingrich swatted aside any talk of a withdrawal and emphatically renewed an earlier vow to campaign into the party convention in Tampa this summer. He said his goal was to "find a series of victories which by the end of Texas primary will leave us at parity" with Romney by early April.
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