Mitt Romney looks set to romp to victory in the Nevada caucus Saturday, cementing his position as Republican presidential frontrunner four days after his crushing Florida win.
Despite a wobble this week with a gaffe about America’s poor, opinion polls give the former Massachusetts governor a huge 20-25 point lead over his rivals in the Western battleground state.
But there is no sign that any of his three opponents, led by former House speaker Newt Gingrich, plan to throw in the towel as the candidates prepare to head to the next state poll in Colorado, another Western state.
The main question seems to be how big Romney’s share of the vote is in Nevada ─ which has a large community that shares his Mormon faith ─ and some say anything less than 50 percent could be seen as a disappointment.
“They’re basically competing against expectations now: can he do better than 50 percent, which is about what he got four years ago?” said David Damore, politics associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Everybody knows he’s going to win, it’s about how big he wins, and how much of the vote he gets,” he told AFP.
A survey commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow showed Romney with 45 percent support compared with 25 percent for Gingrich, 11 percent for former US senator Rick Santorum and nine percent for US Representative Ron Paul of Texas.
Romney is aiming for a third win over his nearest rival Gingrich, as the two wrestle to be the Republican Party’s challenger in the November elections against Democratic President Barack Obama.
After triumphs in New Hampshire and Florida, Romney has cemented his position at the front of the pack and a new poll predicted he would win with 50 percent to Gingrich’s 25 in Nevada.
But a series of gaffes has dented Romney’s image and led to accusations that he is out of touch with ordinary voters, after the multi-millionaire said this week he was “not concerned” about poor Americans who he said have a safety net.
“I misspoke, plain and simple,” Romney acknowledged to CNN on Friday.
But Gingrich on Friday renewed his attacks on the frontrunner for the slip in an eve-of-caucus rally in Las Vegas.
“Governor Romney is trying to recover from his boo boo,” he said to laughter and whoops from supporters at a music bar in the desert gambling city.
The former Massachusetts governor also raised eyebrows after he released tax filings showing he earned $20 million from his investments in 2010 and paid just 13.9 percent in taxes ─ a lower rate than many struggling Americans.
The January jobs report released Friday also exceeded expectations, adding 243,000 net jobs. The U.S. jobless rate ─ now down to 8.3 percent, a nearly a three-year low ─ could give Obama a welcome boost if the trend continues.
Romney welcomed the jump in new jobs, but charged that Obama was still to blame for the nation’s economic sluggishness.
“Unfortunately, these numbers cannot hide the fact that President Obama’s policies have prevented a true economic recovery. We can do better,” said the multi-millionaire investor.
Romney, 64, came second in the first Republican contest in Iowa, then swept the second contest in New Hampshire before Gingrich, 68, thumped him in the South Carolina primary in mid-January.
On Thursday, Romney won the endorsement of real estate mogul and celebrity TV star Donald Trump, who briefly flirted with a presidential run last year.
But the former Massachusetts governor appears to still have trouble cementing his conservative base.
“That’s my main holdback,” said Dave Zimmerman, a Reno-area resident, after hearing Romney’s speech. “I’m afraid he might try to defend Obamacare, for one thing. It is based on his health care” law in Massachusetts.
In his last pre-caucus rally Friday night in Henderson, south of Las Vegas, Romney sought to buoy up supporters gathered in a pizza restaurant parking lot.
“Vote tomorrow, get out there, thanks you guys!” he said at the end of a 10-minute version of his stump speech, before they dispersed into the chilly desert night air.