Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS — Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney cruised to victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday night, notching a second straight triumph over a field of rivals suddenly struggling to keep pace.
The former Massachusetts governor held a double-digit lead over his nearest pursuer as the totals mounted in a state where fellow Mormons accounted for roughly a quarter of all caucus-goers.
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 12 of 17 counties showed Romney with 41 percent support, Gingrich with 25 percent, Paul with 22 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.
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.
A total of 28 Republican National Convention delegates were at stake in caucuses held across a sprawling state that drew little attention in the nominating campaign but figures to be a fierce battleground in the fall between the winner of the GOP nomination and Democrat President Barack Obama. The state's unemployment rate was measured at 12.6 percent in December, the worst in the country.
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.
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 this fall, a finding in line with other states.
About one-quarter of those surveyed said they are Mormon, roughly the same as in 2008, when Romney 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.
The caucus rules were a demonstration of democracy and a reflection of religious diversity.
Nevada awarded its delegates in proportion to the caucus vote totals, meaning that any candidate who captured at least 3.57 percent of the total number of ballots cast would be rewarded. By contrast, Romney's victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday netted him all 50 of the delegates at stake there.
While most caucuses were held during the day, an exception was Clark County, the state's largest. There, party officials arranged to hold one meeting well after sundown at the request of orthodox Jews who observe bans on driving, writing or other work-a-day activities during the Sabbath.
Romney's victory in the state's 2008 caucuses, coupled with the heavy presence of voters who share his Mormon faith, turned Nevada into something of a way-station on the campaign calendar.
There are just over 175,000 Mormons in the state, roughly 7 percent of the population. But they accounted for nearly a quarter of all 2008 Nevada GOP caucus-goers.
Gingrich said he'd be happy to finish second, behind Romney and ahead of Paul. Paul, a Texas lawmaker, was one of two candidates to air television ads in the state, hoping for a close second-place finish if not an upset.
Romney was the other, joined by Restore Our Future, the ubiquitous organization that supports him and has been heavily involved in earlier states.
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