Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS — For now at least, Mitt Romney's presidential campaign seems to mostly be going according to plan. A commanding Nevada victory Saturday night underscored as much.
"You have given me your vote of confidence. And this time, I'm going take it all the way to the White House," an upbeat Romney told a raucous crowd gathered at the Red Rock Resort a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. He ignored his GOP rivals and instead attacked President Barack Obama, insisting the president doesn't deserve credit for the recent drop in the unemployment rate to 8.3 percent.
"Mr. President, we welcome any good news on the jobs front, but it is thanks to the innovation of the American people in the private sector, and not to you," Romney said in Nevada.
Before the Nevada triumph, the former Massachusetts governor had turned in a strong performance in Iowa and won New Hampshire before suffering a serious setback in South Carolina. He recalibrated and went on to win decisively in Florida. Next up are Colorado, where Romney is expected to perform strongly, and Minnesota, which even advisers acknowledge could emerge as a stumbling block.
Romney still has plenty of challenges as he looks to clinch the nomination.
He's shown a tendency to make comments that provide fodder to his critics, saying recently he was "not concerned" about the very poor. The remark prompted backlash among some Republicans worried he would make similar mistakes while running against Obama. Romney's also still working to prove that he can unite skeptical conservatives behind him — even though entrance polls in Nevada showed he performed strongly.
And chief rival Newt Gingrich insists he'll stay in the race until summer, and he could win more contests, particularly those in the South.
As Saturday began, Romney campaigned in neighboring Colorado, where he won in 2008 and where advisers say they are confident he can perform strongly again.
"I need your vote on Tuesday!" Romney told the overflow crowd at a Colorado Springs warehouse. Instead of focusing on any of his Republican rivals, he attacked Obama's economic policies.
"He doesn't get credit for things getting better," Romney said there.
As confident as Romney's advisers seem about Colorado, they appear equally as nervous about upcoming Minnesota.
He won the state in 2008, too, and many observers have assumed he could easily win again. But Romney aides say Minnesota is unpredictable for many reasons. It's a small electorate with a strong evangelical contingent — and the caucus system itself can make the outcomes harder to determine in advance.
In a sign that his team may be considering bypassing the state altogether, Romney on Saturday abruptly canceled plans to headline a rally early Monday in Minneapolis. He decided to head straight to Colorado and leave the Minneapolis event to two of his top surrogates — former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Ambassador John Bolton, one of his most conservative backers. Romney doesn't currently plan to visit before Tuesday's voting.
Minnesota's Republican activists are strongly conservative, which could pose problems for Romney as candidates considered more conservative than him — Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — work to impede the former Massachusetts governor's march to the nomination. Even the libertarian-leaning Ron Paul may end up a player in the Minnesota caucuses.
The political mood in Minnesota has soured of late, with a vitriolic struggle that shut down the state government last year. The sizable evangelical community is concerned about social issues. And a win for one of Romney's competitors could fuel concern that the GOP front-runner still hasn't been able to win over conservatives in his party — or shake the narrative that he is already the presumptive GOP nominee.
Romney himself has sounded increasingly confident in recent days, calling himself the only candidate in the race who can beat Obama. And when his wife, Ann, introduced him at his Nevada victory speech, she cast the win as one not for February but for November.
"Mitt has started to win in states that are very important for the general election," she said, mentioning wins in New Hampshire and Florida. "This state is going to be an important state in the general. ... We're going to need you again next November."
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