LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney won an overwhelming victory in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, giving the former Massachusetts governor his second consecutive victory of the year as he tightened his claim to dominant front-runner status in what had been a turbulent Republican presidential race.
In victory, the former Massachusetts governor unleashed a sharp attack on President Obama, whose economic policies he said have “made these tough times last longer.”
Former House 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 26 percent, Paul with 18 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.
Gingrich emphatically renewed an earlier vow to campaign into the party convention. He said the goal is to “find a series of victories which by the end of the Texas primary will leave us at parity” with Romney by early April.
Romney had his best performance yet among conservatives and won overwhelming backing from his fellow Mormons. Nearly 6 in 10 conservatives backed Romney, preliminary results of a poll of voters entering the caucuses showed. One in four voters was Mormon.
Beyond Nevada and Maine, where caucuses began Saturday, five states will hold contests this month, and none is tailor-made for Gingrich, who had to lighten his campaign schedule in Nevada to make fundraising calls for the road ahead. Romney in 2008 won Colorado and Minnesota, which vote Tuesday. On Feb. 28 come primaries in Arizona and Michigan, Romney’s home state, where his father was governor in the 1960s.
In addition, there won’t be another candidates’ debate until Feb. 22, denying Gingrich the chance for free airtime in a forum that has been his strength in the campaign.
Gingrich’s strategy is to try to score a victory on Super Tuesday, March 6, when three Southern states vote – his native Georgia, plus Oklahoma and Tennessee – and to continue picking up delegates all through March under the proportional representation rules that the GOP adopted to try to give more states a chance for meaningful votes.