U.S. Presidential Election 2008

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Romney Wins Republican Caucus

Republican Mitt Romney won Nevada's caucus, according to media projections Saturday.

The former Massachusetts governor was favored to win the Silver State, as the only major candidate to have focused his efforts here, while Arizona Sen. John McCain and Mike Huckabee were locked in a tight battle for South Carolina. Polls close in South Carolina at 7 p.m. ET.

Democrats today were focused solely on Nevada, with polls showing a close race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Democratic primary in South Carolina will be held next Saturday.

The Nevada victory for Mr. Romney marked his second straight success, coming quickly after a first-place finish in the Michigan primary revived a faltering campaign. Caucus-goers in Nevada said the economy and illegal immigration were their top concerns, according to preliminary results from surveys of voters entering their caucuses, the Associated Press reported. Mr. Romney was leader among voters who cited both issues.

"This is a race to get delegates, to get above the magic number that gets you the nomination," Mr. Romney told reporters Friday. "I think it's gonna be real hard to win the presidency… by not showing up in Nevada you communicate that Nevada doesn't matter to you."

Mr. Romney had several advantages in Nevada -- mostly because it neighbors Utah, a state which knows Mr. Romney for his Mormon faith and his handling of the 2002 Olympic winter games in Salt Lake City. Surrounded by snowy mountains in Elko, two hundred supporters came out to a brisk early morning rally. Julie and Bryan Gale drove 70 miles from their ranch in Ruby Valley to hear Mr. Romney speak. The Gales, who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have been fans of Mr. Romney's for years. Mr. Gale says he isn't interested in any of the other candidates. "Everyone else is just fried fluff," he said.

One outlier in the Nevada contests: Nobody knows how to caucus. This type of contest will be a first for the large state, which has a later primary date. Campaigns on both sides have worked hard to educate caucus goers, as have other civic organizations. Kathe Linnell, a retired elementary school teacher from Spring Creek, attended a retired teacher's meeting that was devoted to caucus education. Mrs. Linnell, 57 years old and a Romney supporter, was looking forward to participating Saturday morning. "I really wanna see it work. I mean how many opportunities do you get?" she said. "This is Nevada's first, so it's exciting."

But the biggest battle today is in South Carolina, where Mr. McCain is seeking to settle a score after having lost both the state and, by many accounts, his presidential bid there in 2000. His campaign has retooled his approach this time around, pushing his social conservative credentials as well as his support of the military. On Friday night, he held a rally on an aircraft carrier, continuing his battle cry against pork barrel spending.

There, Mr. McCain challenges Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who is popular among evangelicals. News surfaced recently of push polling on Mr. Huckabee's behalf -- more than one million calls over three days, according to the Associated Press -- though his campaign quickly came out against the negative tactic.

An average of recent polls show Messrs. McCain and Huckabee in a close contest in South Carolina, each with about 26 points. Mr. Romney, who has had an extensive on-the-ground organization in the Palmetto State and spent millions of dollars there, trails by 10 points and has largely ceded the state to his rivals. Instead, he's campaigned in Nevada, where the Republican results are the first ones due out today.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who has staked his flagging campaign on a good South Carolina performance, generally runs third or fourth in the polls. Such a weak performance could end his campaign.