Romney Takes Step to GOP Nomination With Nevada Romp

PHOTO: Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally at Colorado Springs Fabrication February 4, 2012 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
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ABC news projects Mitt Romney will win the Nevada Caucuses tonight.

In a race where the smart money has always been on him, Mitt Romney took another step today towards securing the Republican presidential nomination with a victory in the Nevada caucuses, a state he also won easily four years ago.

Romney had around 40 percent of the vote as caucus returns rolled in tonight, for his third victory in the first five voting states.

Gingrich was in second with about 20 percent of the vote. Ron Paul was in third.

Romney, who stormed into Nevada fresh off a resounding win Tuesday in the Florida primary, benefitted from the large presence of his fellow Mormons in the first western state to vote. According to entrance poll results, Mormons made up about a quarter of caucus participants in Nevada today, by far the most of any of the earlier primary states.

In 2008, Romney enjoyed the support of 95 percent of Mormons in Nevada, in addition to the broad backing he had from other faith groups, including evangelicals, who account for about a quarter of caucus participants today.

Overall, caucus-goers in Nevada cited a candidate's ability to defeat President Obama as their chief concern today -- more than four in 10 say it's the top item in their vote, more than double the number who chose any other option. And the economy -- an area of strength for the former businessman Romney -- is the dominating issue on voters' minds.

In the past few days, Newt Gingrich -- Romney's closest rival on Tuesday in Florida -- has seemed unable to make a dent in the 20-point gap separating the two in the polls.

Rick Santorum, who beat Romney by a mere 34 votes in Iowa's caucuses in early January, has never emerged as a real player in Nevada. And Ron Paul, the libertarian favorite who once seemed set to make a strong push for the state, has not managed to gain any sense of momentum.

Entrance polls had some concerning news for Paul, who skipped Florida in a bid for a win in Nevada: Self-identified independent voters, a group in which Paul has tended to do better, account for just about two in 10 caucus-goers in Nevada today, better than their share in 2008, but still heavily outnumbered by mainline Republicans. One more potential problem for Paul is that young voters, a group that he has done well with, barely make up one in 10 caucus-goers.

But despite the relative lack of suspense in Nevada, that's not to say that the campaign trail's swing through the state didn't feature its fair share of memorable moments.

In Las Vegas, Donald Trump of all people reappeared to announce his support for Romney, an endorsement that -- in typically modest Trump fashion -- he dubbed "the most important" of the campaign season.

Gingrich, for his part, used his time in Las Vegas to hang out with MC Hammer, according to a tweet by his campaign manager.

It wasn't all fun and games. In fact, Romney turned out to be his own biggest enemy. No sooner had he emerged victorious in Florida than he delivered another one of the foot-in-mouth moments that have marred his campaign thus far.

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