Nevada could count after all.
A month before the Feb. 4 GOP presidential caucus, Mitt Romney remains the candidate to beat here. But Rick Santorum's whisker-close, second-place finish behind him in Tuesday's Iowa caucus suggests the more conservative alternatives to the front-runner might not fade quickly.
And candidates who survive New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida won't be able to ignore Nevada.
"Unless somebody sweeps all three states, Nevada's probably going to matter," said Ryan Erwin, a top Romney adviser in the state. "The fascinating thing about Nevada now is nobody can afford to skip it. If a candidate is still in the race, they're going to have to play here."
After his strong Iowa showing, Santorum hired Nevada staff and pledged to continue his campaign through the Silver State's Feb. 4 caucus, the first vote in the West, which could set the tone beyond January.
"He'll be campaigning out here," said David McGowan, the new Nevada director for Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who is little-known outside the East Coast. "We're excited about reaching out to conservatives and spreading the senator's message."
Newt Gingrich's campaign appears prepared for the long haul in Nevada, too. Rick Perry is soldiering on, with money to stay in the race past the January contests. Yet the field almost certainly will thin before Nevada's vote.
So far, the candidates have all but ignored the state except for Romney and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. The two finished No. 1 and No. 2 in Nevada four years ago, giving them a big organizational advantage in 2012.
Only Rep. Michele Bachmann dropped out of the GOP race on Wednesday, after coming in sixth in Iowa.
Romney got 24.6 percent of the vote and Santorum 24.5 percent, with Romney scoring eight more votes than Santorum. Ron Paul got 21.4 percent, Gingrich 13.3 percent and Perry 10.3 percent. Jon Huntsman, who has focused on New Hampshire, pulled in a measly 0.6 percent of the vote.
Romney is favored to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday , but he will get lots of competition from Paul and some from Santorum, Gingrich and Perry, thanks to back-to-back debates in the Granite State this weekend.
Otherwise, Santorum, Gingrich and Perry all have their eyes set more on South Carolina, where Romney isn't expected to win the Jan. 21 primary in the conservative state.
Paul plans to hit Nevada heavily this month , likely after the New Hampshire primary, his campaign said Wednesday. The Texas congressman plans at least 10 events with his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a darling of tea party conservatives who want to cut government spending drastically.
"Ron Paul is the only true alternative to the establishment brand," said Carl Bunce, Ron Paul's Nevada director, referring to Romney. "Gingrich may take some votes. Santorum doesn't have any financial base. And Perry has money, but I don't think he has the personality to drive people. I have a couple of friends who support him, and they're having a tough time generating any excitement."
Romney is taking nothing for granted in the face of heavy Nevada competition from Paul. Romney and Paul are poised to finish No. 1 and No. 2 again , although a rising conservative threat from Santorum, Gingrich or even Perry if he manages a comeback could shake things up.
"There's the campaign for the (GOP) nomination and the campaign to be the anti-Romney candidate," said Robert Uithoven, a GOP operative not associated with any presidential campaign. "I think that's good for Romney. The more candidates in the race getting the anti-Romney vote, the better for Romney" because it splinters that vote.
"Whether they (the candidates) come to Nevada will depend on who wins South Carolina and Florida," he said.
Florida's Jan. 31 primary could be up for grabs. Romney has the most money to compete in the vast state and already is running TV ads, but Southern conservatives might not embrace him.
Huntsman has been focused on New Hampshire and has no campaign organization in Nevada, which he boycotted during a Silver State calendar dispute late last year with the Granite State. All of the major GOP candidates traveled to Las Vegas for an Oct. 18 debate except Huntsman.
Originally, Nevada's GOP presidential caucus was supposed to be the third vote in the nation behind Iowa and New Hampshire. But Florida's primary jumped into January, which moved up the early state calendar. That made Nevada a less important fifth in the lineup, although first in the West.
Nevada's caucus will be followed by Colorado and then the Arizona GOP primary on Feb. 28, another major contest before Super Tuesday on March 6, when about a dozen states will vote.
Candidates who don't finish first in Nevada can still pick up some of its 28 delegates to the nominating convention, depending on what percentage of the vote they get. Paul's strategy is to pick up as many delegates as he can to have a say in the party platform at the convention.
Every Republican conservative who has risen in the polls to challenge Romney has quickly fallen. That has made fundraising a challenge for the lower-tier candidates running on fumes.
The Gingrich campaign in Nevada doesn't expect to get a lot of resources flooding into the state, but his GOP operatives said they hope to keep the former House speaker in the game. They plan to ship used Gingrich signs from Iowa to Nevada, dust and all, to save money.
"McCain came in fourth last time in Iowa," said Paul Jackson of the Gingrich campaign, who worked for the 2008 GOP nominee. "We're looking to slug the ball and get on base. And Newt's strong base is going to be South Carolina and Florida. Iowa doesn't pick presidents. It weeds people out."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.