LAS VEGAS -- Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney cruised to a decisive victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday night, notching a second-straight triumph over a field of rivals suddenly struggling to keep pace.
In victory, the former Massachusetts governor unleashed a sharp attack on President Barack Obama, whose economic policies he said have “made these tough times last longer.”
In a state with the worst joblessness in the country, Romney added, “This week he’s been trying to take
a bow for 8.3 percent unemployment. Not so fast, Mr. President. This is the 36th straight month with unemployment above the red line your own administration drew.”
Returns from 14 of 17 counties showed the former Massachusetts governor with 42 percent support, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 26 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 18 percent and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with 13 percent.
Still to report its results was Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and often accounts for half or more of the votes in a statewide election.
In defeat, Gingrich swatted aside talk of a withdrawal and emphatically renewed a vow to campaign into the party convention in Tampa this summer. He said his goal was to “find a series of victories which by the end of (the April 3) Texas primary will leave us at parity” with Romney.
Nevada’s caucuses were sedate -- with little television advertising, no candidate debates and only a modest investment of time by the contenders.
A total of 28 Republican National Convention delegates were at stake in caucuses held across a sprawling state that figures to be a fierce battleground in the fall between the GOP nominee and Democratic President Obama. The state’s unemployment rate was 12.6 percent in December, the worst in the country.
According to the AP count, Romney began the day with 87 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination. Gingrich had 26, Santorum 14 and Paul 4.
As he did in Florida, Romney was eager to take on the mantle of nominee-in-waiting when he spoke to supporters -- even though Gingrich, Santorum and Paul have said they intend to remain in the race.
“President Obama seems to believe America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past. I believe the 21st century will be and must be an American century,” Romney said to cheers from his backers.
Preliminary results of a poll of Nevada Republicans entering their caucuses showed that nearly half said the most important consideration in their decision was a candidate’s ability to defeat Obama this fall, a finding in line with other states.
There are just over 175,000 Mormons in the state, roughly 7 percent of the population. But about one-quarter of GOP caucus-goers surveyed said they are Mormon, roughly the same as in 2008, when Romney won with more than 50 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field.
The entrance poll was conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press at 25 randomly selected caucus sites. It included 1,553 interviews and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Nevada awarded its delegates in proportion to the caucus vote totals, meaning that any candidate who captured at least 3.57 percent of the total number of ballots cast would be rewarded.
While most caucuses were held during the day, an exception was Clark County, the state’s largest. There, party officials arranged to hold one meeting well after sundown at the request of orthodox Jews who observe bans on driving, writing or other work-a-day activities during the Sabbath.
Gingrich said he’d be happy to finish second, behind Romney and ahead of Paul. Paul, a Texas lawmaker, was one of two candidates to air television ads in the state, hoping for a close second-place finish if not an upset.
Romney was the other, joined by Restore Our Future, the ubiquitous organization that supports him and has been heavily involved in earlier states.
Santorum campaigned relatively little in Nevada, although he picked up the support of Sharron Angle, a tea party favorite who won the GOP Senate nomination in a 2010 upset and then lost her race to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
From Nevada, the calendar turns to caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and the nonbinding Missouri primary on Tuesday.