LAS VEGAS — The economy, unemployment and political dislike of President Barack Obama were on the minds of Nevada Republicans who fanned out to fire stations, schools and an empty warehouse Saturday, some braving freezing temperatures before sunrise to cast their vote for a GOP presidential nominee.
GOP caucuses began as early as 7 a.m. in the state capital of Carson City, with a "vote and go" option for shift workers and others unable to attend the regular caucus meeting. Depending on the county, caucuses were scheduled at various times throughout the day, the last scheduled for 7 p.m.
Rita Homer and her husband, Brad, were the first in line when the doors opened in Carson City around sunrise.
For them, unemployment and immigration are the biggest concerns in this year's presidential race. They planned to vote for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"He has some off-the-wall ideas, but I have no problem with that," said Rita Homer, 60, an office manager and tea party backer. "If he wants someone on the moon, let's get there first."
By midday, many caucuses were in full swing around the state, with voters debating the attributes and shortcomings of the four remaining GOP hopefuls — Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.
More than 1,000 people were at a middle school in Sparks, one of 15 caucus sites in the Reno-Sparks area.
Vinney Tolman, a 35-year-old small business owner, was backing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who won Nevada four years ago and was favored to repeat on Saturday.
"He has some ethics and morals that are going to be a stable foundation for his policies," Tolman said.
Rosemary Millet, 56, liked Romney's business experience.
"We need a financial genius at this point and I think he's it," she said in Carson City.
Charlene Bybee, a Sparks flight attendant and tea party organizer, said former House Speaker Gingrich was the better candidate because he talks about "facts, not rhetoric."
In the Las Vegas community of Summerlin, Steve Commander bounced around a middle school science classroom wearing a tea party lapel pin and a tie spangled with $100 bills.
He serenaded volunteers with a rendition of the Sammy Davis Jr. song, "I've Gotta Be Me."
"I'm excited about the America that was and will be," said Commander, 67, a former adviser to Sharron Angle in her failed bid to unseat Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Republicans this year are hoping to generate the kind of buzz and voter enthusiasm that Democrats garnered in 2008 to propel Obama to the White House.
At Cimarron High School in Las Vegas, about 1,200 people from 26 precincts turned out, and by 10 a.m. most had finished voting.
"We had some minor issues and had to call the central party office to verify registered voters," said site manager Tom Thomas. "A few showed up late after their precincts finished. We didn't turn anyone away."
There was confusion at Green Valley High School in Henderson when several hundred caucus-goers converged on the school auditorium only to find a school event already scheduled. Caucus organizers ushered people to various classrooms for meetings by precinct number.
A special 7 p.m. caucus was to be held to accommodate religious voters in Clark County who celebrate the Saturday Sabbath. Caucus results will be released by the state Party via Twitter and Google.
Romney was a projected favorite, though all of the candidates had their share of backers.
Jeff Coppens, 45, and his wife decided just before the caucus to support Santorum, and dismissed talk that Romney was the presumptive Republican nominee.
"I feel differently that Romney's the only one who can beat Obama," Coppens said, adding that Santorum "is consistent on what he says and very tough."
The Nevada caucuses are the first-in-the-West Republican presidential contest and the fifth in the nation.
Romney carried the state four years ago, benefiting in part by the large Mormon presence in Nevada.
Paul, a Texas congressman, finished second in Nevada in 2008, and was counting on continued support Saturday from a loyal base and voters like Ruth Dodrill who are attracted to his libertarian, anti-government and anti-tax message.
"I doubt he will make it, but I still believe there are steps this country needs to make to get its economics in shape," said Dodrill, 76, a former teacher. "Government should not be running anything. That's unconstitutional."
State GOP leaders expect 50,000 to 60,000 voters — out of 400,000 active registered Republicans in Nevada — to participate. At stake are 28 delegates to this summer's Republican nominating convention that will be awarded proportionally based on the outcome of Saturday's contest.
All four candidates crisscrossed the state this week, trying to woo voters in a state that has been slow to recover from the economic blows of the Great Recession.
Nevada's unemployment rate has been highest in the nation since May 2010, soaring to just shy of 15 percent later that year. By December 2011, the rate receded to 12.6 percent, but more than 166,000 people remained out of work.
The collapse of the housing market left a majority of homeowners underwater on mortgages, and one in every 177 homes was in foreclosure in December, also the highest rate in the nation.
Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels, Ken Ritter and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas and Scott Sonner and Martin Griffith in Reno contributed to this report.