Romney wins Nevada, Gingrich to fight on

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney rolled up a huge victory in Nevada and looks to caucus contests in three more states this week to solidify the growing sense of inevitability surrounding his candidacy to block President Barack Obama from a second term.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives and Romney’s main challenger, finished a distant second but vowed yet again to stay in the race for the Republican nomination clear to the party’s national convention in late August in Tampa, Florida.

In a victory rally Saturday night, Romney turned his fire toward Obama who is vulnerable because the U.S. economy, while showing signs of picking up steam, remains mired in a sluggish and slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Romney’s message was particularly relevant in Nevada where the unemployment rate was measured at 12.6 percent in December, the worst in the U.S. The state, which witnessed a huge housing boom during the real estate bubble that burst in the recession, still faces a plague of home mortgage foreclosures.

“You have given me your vote of confidence. And this time, I’m going take it all the way to the White House,” an upbeat Romney told a raucous crowd gathered at the Red Rock Resort a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. He ignored his Republican rivals to attack Obama, insisting the president doesn’t deserve credit for the recent drop in the national unemployment rate to 8.3 percent.

“Mr. president, we welcome any good news on the jobs front, but it is thanks to the innovation of the American people in the private sector, and not to you,” said Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist.

Gingrich held no rally Saturday but instead told reporters that his goal was to “find a series of victories which by the end of the Texas primary will leave us at parity” with Romney by early April.

With votes from 71 percent of the precinct caucuses tallied, Romney had 48 percent, Gingrich 23 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul 19 percent and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum 11 percent. Turnout was down significantly from 2008, when Romney also won the state’s Republican caucuses.

With the race going very much in Romney’s direction, Colorado and Minnesota both hold caucuses Tuesday. Maine follows on Saturday during a month that promises to be as plodding as January was rapid-fire in the presidential race.

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. A total of 28 delegates were at stake in Nevada, which awards them proportionally, according to the number of votes for each candidate.

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, a finding in line with other states.

About one-quarter of those surveyed said they are Mormon, like Romney, roughly the same as in 2008, when he 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.

After Maine’s caucuses end next Saturday, the next seriously contested states are expected to be primaries in Michigan and Arizona on Feb. 28.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.