LAS VEGAS Mitt Romney won Saturday's Nevada GOP presidential caucus, thanks largely to overwhelming support from the Silver State's sizable number of like-minded LDS voters.
"Today, the people of Nevada voted for change in Washington," Romney said, calling the need for change even more apparent because of the nation's economic challenges. "With a career spent turning around business, creating jobs and imposing fiscal discipline, I am ready to get my hands on Washington and turn it inside out."
Romney gambled wisely it turns out on securing another first-place finish in Nevada by cutting short his campaigning in South Carolina, which on Saturday went for Sen. John McCain of Arizona in a tight race with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Romney bet on Mormon-friendly Nevada rather than South Carolina the first Southern state to hold its primary in the 2008 presidential campaign because of the large number of evangelical Christian voters there, many who don't consider Mormons to be fellow Christians. It's widely believed evangelical Christian voters contributed to Romney's Jan. 3 loss to Huckabee in Iowa.
In terms of delegates, Romney's wager paid off handsomely with him capturing 17 of Nevada's 31 available delegates. By comparison, only 24 total GOP delegates were up for grabs in South Carolina, where Romney was shut out after a disappointing fourth-place finish marking the first time this primary season that he didn't finish first or second in a contest.
Romney's strategy may have cost him some momentum nationally, however, as South Carolina's hotly contested primary received more media attention than Nevada's lightly contested GOP caucus. The only other Republican candidate besides Romney to campaign seriously in Nevada was Texas Congressman Ron Paul a perennial also-ran who scored a second-place Nevada finish.
The same couldn't be said for the Nevada Democratic caucuses, where Hillary Clinton edged Barack Obama 51 percent to 45 percent in a race that garnered national, even international, coverage. But due to the procedural quirks of awarding delegates, Obama actually received 13 delegates in Nevada to Clinton's 12, an AP analysis of caucus results showed.
Exit polling showed whites, women and Hispanics propelled Clinton to victory, while Nevada blacks overwhelmingly backed Obama. Obama continued to show strength with young voters earning the vote of nearly six in 10 caucus-goers under age 30 but they made up only 13 percent of the votes cast. Clinton dwarfed that advantage by winning 60 percent of voters over age 60, who were more than a third of the electorate.
Romney also lost New Hampshire's primary, to McCain in a race in which religion was less of an issue. But he beat back a challenge from McCain in Michigan's primary last week to re-energize his flagging campaign. Romney also earlier won Wyoming's little-noticed party county conventions.
Romney boosted his odds in Nevada with a whirlwind tour of the state over the past two days. It also didn't hurt his chances that many of his Nevada staff and volunteers were LDS, as were many supporters who turned out for events he held in Las Vegas, Elko and Reno since Thursday.
On Saturday, that support was converted into caucus votes. Romney totaled 51 percent to Paul's 14 percent. McCain was third with 13 percent.
Exit polls showed that half of Romney's overall vote in Nevada came from LDS voters and that Mormons comprised 26 percent of those attending Nevada's GOP caucuses 95 percent voting for Romney. About one in five GOP caucus-goers were white evangelical or born-again Christians, and Romney won them too, with 37 percent, although 22 percent favored Huckabee.
Romney left Nevada early Saturday for Florida, where Republicans go to the polls on Jan. 29. But before leaving, he stopped at a Las Vegas caucus site, Palo Verde High School.
Although the GOP caucus was not set to begin for more than an hour, a small but enthusiastic crowd of supporters turned out to see the party's only candidate who campaigned in Nevada in recent days besides Paul, a former Libertarian candidate for president.
In the parking lot of the high school, Romney delivered a quick campaign speech from the back of a pickup truck, handed out doughnuts and posed for pictures during a 45-minute stop on an unusually cold day for southern Nevada.
He thanked his Nevada team for its hard work, as well as out-of-state volunteers from California and Utah. "So far, with two golds and two silvers, we're feeling pretty good," Romney told them,
Seeming relaxed, he joked about his appearance the night before on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," saying "it takes one giant head to know another giant head," and introduced a niece who lives in California and her husband, the inventor of a super-powered pogo stick that can carry a user over a car.
"Running for president and jumping over cars on a pogo stick in both cases you can be badly injured," Romney said, laughing. When someone joked that a helmet was needed for both pursuits, he patted his carefully combed hair and said, "I've got mine on at all times."
Dax Arriola took a photo of his son, Adam, 6, with Romney. "Adam, that's the next president of the United States right there, buddy. And Gov. Romney, too," Arriola said. Later, his wife, Amy, thrust their baby, Abby, into Romney's arms for another shot for the family album.
Arriola said it's important to him that Romney is a fellow member of the LDS Church because they share the same family values. "It's not 100 percent, but obviously everybody in America wants to feel like they can connect with somebody," he said. "That's one connection that I have, just my religion, and that's it."
A number of people in the crowd were from California, another area of the county with a considerable LDS population and vital for Romney to mobilize if he's to gain another gold in the California's primary on Feb. 5 the same day more than 20 states, including Utah, vote in primary elections or caucuses.
Mark and Amy Edwards of Mill Creek in northern California drove down to volunteer for Romney. The couple, who are LDS, said they were thinking of their own children when they decided to help.
Mark Edwards, a West Jordan prosecutor, said, "We were talking about how do we tell our kids someday that they can do anything when someone ran for president and had a chance who was a Mormon and was precluded from doing that just because he was a Mormon. I can't stand idly by when I actually believe in his message and do nothing."