HENDERSON, Nev. — Just before Mitt Romney took the stage in a shopping center parking lot here Friday evening amid palm trees and grocery carts, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt rallied the crowd.
Describing how Romney turned around the scandal scarred 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Leavitt urged voters to support him in Saturday's GOP caucus vote.
"Tomorrow we caucus and we send the message that we need Mitt Romney,'' Leavitt said. "Nevada will send him on his way."
Polls give Romney a considerable lead over former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in Nevada, a state with a significant number of voters who share Romney's Mormon faith.
"Every campaign has a base," Leavitt told the Deseret News. "It's made up of many different people who feel some alignment. It could be geographic, it could be they went to the same school, it could be they share the same faith."
For a Mormon candidate it's easier to connect with that base in a place like Nevada. "It plays out different in different areas," Leavitt said. "When you go to certain places in the south, it's not that prominent. But when you come to places in the west, it is."
A new poll for the Review Journal and KLAS-TV in Las Vegas found nearly 86 percent of the Republicans surveyed who identified themselves as Mormons planned to caucus for Romney.
Four years ago, when the South Carolina primary was held on the same day as the Nevada caucuses, Romney chose to campaign in Nevada and won with 51 percent of the vote. He gambled on the support of Mormon voters in Nevada countering what was clearly going to be a difficult race in South Carolina, where many evangelical voters don't consider Mormons fellow Christians.
That's a problem Romney ran into this election year in South Carolina, where he finished a disappointing second behind Gingrich, partly because of what his campaign called a "headwind" created by how some voters viewed his faith.
Leavitt said Romney's experience in South Carolina "illustrates the point that every state is made up a little differently" and successful candidates much reach voters beyond their base.
But the former U.S. Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush said a win in a state like Nevada with a favorable electorate is still a win.
"They have 34 delegates and that matters a lot," Leavitt said. "It's the same as a delegate in South Carolina. We got two there and we're glad for them. We need 1,144 and we're going to take them where we get them."
Many in the audience at Romney's final rally in Nevada were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including Kevin and Marinda Westwood, who recently moved to Las Vegas from Provo.
Balancing their two-year-old son, Ezra, on his shoulders, Kevin Westwood said he tried not to let Romney's faith influence his decision to support him.
"But to a certain degree, it still would," he said. "He believes in some of the same things we do."
Marinda Westwood said if being a Mormon was enough to win her vote, she would have considered supporting another member of the church, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., who left the race after the New Hampshire primary.
Huntsman "was not experienced enough. I wouldn't have voted for him," she said, describing Romney as "a good businessman. America needs to be run like a business."
Brent Davis, a nuclear physicist from Las Vegas, said he would be voting for Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann if she hadn't also dropped out of the running. Now, Davis is backing Romney, but not because he's a fellow Mormon.
"I think the LDS are independent. We try to keep politics away from our religion," he said. "We like good men and good women. I liked Newt until I found out more about him."
Charlyn Lee, a health inspector from Las Vegas, said she was still trying to choose between Romney and Paul, who has run for president before as a Libertarian.
She laughed when asked whether Romney's faith was a factor. "Coming from Harry Reid's state, not really," Lee said, referring to the U.S. Senate majority leader from Nevada, a Mormon and a Democrat.
Members of the LDS Church only make up about 7 percent of Nevada's population. But in 2008, Mormons made up about one-fourth of the GOP caucus participants.
"They're significant because they turn out at such high rates," University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor David Damore said of LDS voters.
Mormon voters are going to be even more motivated to turn out for Romney Saturday, Damore said, because he is the frontrunner after coming off a big victory in Florida .
"This time, they're going to be highly engaged and highly mobilized," Damore said, because they have the chance to give him back-to-back wins.
A number of Utahns have traveled to Nevada to volunteer here for Romney; others are telephoning Silver State voters from a call center in Orem.
Fraser Bullock, who was brought in by Romney to serve as chief operating officer of the 2002 Olympics, said LDS voters appreciate his efforts to salvage the image of the state most associated with their faith, as home to the LDS Church's world headquarters.
"The Olympics were in deep trouble and our state had some clouds hanging over it, so to speak, at the time of the scandal," Bullock said. "To be able to reverse that, to be able to restore if not enhance the image, could have been a big factor in the LDS community."
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney adviser, said Nevadans "were up close and personal to the job he did for the Olympics. And, of course, there's a strong LDS community."
Damore said only about 20 percent of Nevada Mormons are Democrats. Given's Romney's 20-point lead over Gingrich in the new Nevada poll, Damore said only the most motivated voters may show up for their party caucuses.28 comments on this story
"Your average Republican, I can't see them to be galvanized to do this tomorrow," he said, suggesting that could also mean a surprisingly strong showing for Paul, whose supporters are known to be loyal.
But with a good turnout from LDS voters, Damore said Romney could top 50 percent again this election.
Carey Noorda, an orthodontist from Henderson, said he'd just as soon not hear about how his faith figures into the election.
"I really hope they don't talk about that," Noorda said. "I really hope they vote for Romney not because he's a Mormon but because of his values and because of his policies."