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.PlayJustin Sullivan/Getty Images
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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.

"I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor," Romney told CNN's Soledad O'Brien in an interview Wednesday morning. "We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I'll continue to take that message across the nation."

Add "I'm not concerned about the very poor" to a growing list of Romney gaffes that already included his "corporations are people" line in Iowa last summer, his $10,000 bet to Rick Perry at a debate last December, and his "I like being able to fire people" comment in New Hampshire last month. And cue the attacks from his rivals.

"I really believe that we should care about the very poor, unlike Gov. Romney," Gingrich said.

"Out of touch much?" quipped Santorum.

"I misspoke," Romney said later in an interview with Nevada journalist Jon Ralston. "I've said something that is similar to that, but quite acceptable, for a long time."

But it was the type of mistake that could come back to haunt him in a general election showdown against President Obama, whose campaign wasted no time in pouncing on the comment.

Making matters worse for Romney during an otherwise easy week, his main argument -- his business experience that will enable him, unlike Obama, to jumpstart the nation's sluggish economy -- was weakened on Friday when a better-than-expected jobs report for January was released.

The country's economy added 243,000 jobs during the month. The unemployment rate decreased from 8.5 percent to 8.3 percent. The more the economy improves, the more likely voters will be to back Obama, analysts say.

While Romney in recent months has tried to train his fire more on Obama than on his Republican primary rivals, Gingrich's big victory in South Carolina and sharp attacks on his record have prompted the former Massachusetts governor to engage in campaign clashes more than he might have hoped.

Romney's campaign unleashed a barrage of negative attack ads on Gingrich in Florida -- of the $15 million they spent on television advertising in the state, only one ad was positive, and that was in Spanish -- and he aggressively went after the former House Speaker in the last two debates.

Undeterred, Gingrich has vowed to fight on all the way to the GOP convention this summer -- and his campaign is now preparing a new, sharper line of attack on Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts. One of Gingrich's pollsters told the Washington Times this week that Romney "has never been called to account for his record in the only elected position of voter trust that he has held."

That type of incoming fire will make February's nominating contests that much more crucial for Romney. With a win in Nevada -- and the bulk of the state's 28 delegates -- Romney would add to the 71 delegates he held after his Florida victory, but 1,144 are needed to win the GOP nomination, something that is mathematically impossible for him to accomplish before April.

Commanding wins in the remaining six states to vote in February, however, could so weaken Romney's rivals that come Super Tuesday on March 6, the race would be all but over.

To that end, expect Romney to stay on the offensive this month as the campaign trail heads to states where he is heavily favored.

In the 2008 primary, Romney won Minnesota, Colorado, Maine, Michigan and Wyoming. The only state voting in February that Romney lost was Arizona, the home state of his rival -- and the party's eventual nominee -- Sen. John McCain, and there Romney came in second.

Minnesota and Colorado hold their caucuses on Feb. 7, Maine holds its caucuses over the course of the week ending Feb. 11, Michigan and Arizona have their primaries on Feb. 28, and Wyoming's caucuses wrap up on Feb. 29.

The month -- comparatively a dead zone in the primary season -- provides Romney with a golden opportunity to take a stranglehold on the nomination, a nomination that will look all the more likely to be his if he manages to duplicate his resounding 2008 romp in Nevada. Don't bet against it.

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.