LAS VEGAS — Ron Paul is rolling the dice on Nevada and other caucus states like Minnesota, Kansas and Washington, hoping to keep his nontraditional presidential campaign alive by amassing Republican delegates rather than notching outright wins.
The presidential hopeful came in dead last in Florida's primary, fourth in South Carolina's primary and third in Iowa's caucuses. His strongest showing so far was in New Hampshire, where he placed a distant second behind Mitt Romney in the opening primary of the 2012 campaign.
Undeterred with just four delegates so far, Paul and his advisers say they are sticking to a strategy that avoids major commitments in expensive winner-take-all primaries, like Florida's and Arizona's, in favor of lower-cost states that proportionally allocate their delegates.
"Our goal is to win. And you win by getting the maximum number of delegates," Paul said at a news conference Wednesday in Las Vegas, where he is campaigning ahead of the Saturday's Nevada caucuses. "I'm delighted Nevada makes it fair, where we can compete for the votes. When we get the delegates and build up momentum, we can win."
It's a tall order for Paul by any measure, even though 46 states have yet to vote and just 6 percent of the delegates have been won so far.
A candidate must win 1,144 delegates to secure the GOP nomination. Romney's victory in Florida has already helped him jump out to a substantial delegate lead — he now has 87 delegates compared with 26 for Newt Gingrich and 14 for Rick Santorum. Those numbers include endorsements from Republican National Committee members who will automatically attend the party convention.
Romney's deep-pocketed campaign is also built to last, with strong organizations across several states, including Nevada, whose caucuses the former Massachusetts governor won in 2008. Paul placed a distant second in Nevada that year, and his advisers are cautiously predicting a victory on Saturday.
The campaign has been running television ads in the state for three weeks and several top Republican county activists are Paul supporters. The Texas congressman's diehard band of supporters is expected to show up at caucuses, while many less committed Republicans are likely to stay home.
"A lot of people care about liberty here," said Paul's chief strategist, Jesse Benton. "There's a strong independent spirit. We feel like we have the numbers."
Nevada's 28 delegates are allocated proportionally, meaning no one candidate can take them all.
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, predicted Romney would win the caucuses but Paul would come out strong.
"Nevada has a libertarian streak in politics. Our economy is based on gambling and drinking and low social service provision," Herzik said. "That speaks to this kind of limited government, individual liberty approach to politics that Ron Paul favors."
After all but skipping Florida and South Carolina, Paul is signaling a seriousness of purpose in Nevada.
He discussed immigration policy with Hispanic voters in Las Vegas and has laid out a five-point plan for revitalizing the state's weak economy with proposals like ending the taxation of tips. The campaign estimates that about 20 percent of the state's workers hold jobs that generate income from tips.
From Nevada, Paul will head to Minnesota, whose caucuses are Tuesday, as are Colorado's. Minnesota has 37 delegates, Colorado 33.
Paul held events in Colorado on Tuesday, but his campaign is not running television advertising there as it is in Minnesota.
Paul also campaigned in Maine, whose caucuses begin Saturday and run through Feb. 11. The state has 21 delegates.
Those states allocate their delegates proportionally by congressional district. That means Paul would have to win a congressional district to receive any delegates.
From there, Paul is eyeing Michigan, whose primary is Feb. 28. Romney is heavily favored in Michigan, where he grew up and where his father, George Romney, served as governor. Nonetheless, Benton says Paul is likely to pass the 15 percent threshold for winning at least some delegates.
Benton said Paul would probably not compete hard in Arizona, a winner-take-all state whose primary is also Feb. 28. But the Texas congressman is expected to put his energy toward winning a chunk of Washington state's 40 delegates, which are allocated by caucus on March 3.
Next up: primary-heavy Super Tuesday, March 6, where the Paul campaign is eyeing a possible outright win in Idaho if not much of a delegate haul in the other nine states with contests that day.
More promising are other states with March caucuses: Kansas, March 10; Hawaii, March 13; and Missouri, March 17. A week later, on March 24, comes the primary in Louisiana, another state where Paul's campaign thinks it can do well.
Caucus states typically go through a three-stage process. Voters at the precinct level elect delegates who then go to county and state conventions. Benton said the Paul campaign has active organizations in caucus states to ensure the delegate strategy would be followed all the way to the state conventions, where actual delegates are allocated.
Paul raised $13.3 million in the last quarter of 2011 and was pulling in about $100,000 per day, Benton said.1 comment on this story
Herzik said Paul faced tough odds trying to slow Romney.
"Romney can match Paul for organization, and has a broader base of support. And after Florida," Herzik said, "Romney has the momentum."
Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Beth Fouhy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy