A new poll shows Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney headed for a blowout victory Saturday in Nevada's GOP caucuses.
Romney wins support from 45 percent of Nevada Republicans who said they plan to participate in the caucuses, the survey commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow said.
Newt Gingrich is Romney's closest threat with 25 percent backing, thanks in large part to Republicans who say they "strongly support" the tea party movement.
Rick Santorum edges out Ron Paul, 11 percent to 9 percent, although the Texas congressman often outperforms polls by turning out his loyal backers in caucus contests, where party members pick their favorites. Paul is deeply organized here. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, is not well-known in Nevada and only recently hired staff and opened an office to compete here.
Another 9 percent said they didn't know who they planned to back. That leaves room for a Romney opponent to pick up undecided support before Saturday -- or for the former Massachusetts governor to make gains and try to match his winning 51 percent total in the 2008 GOP caucuses here.
"If Romney gets 50 percent, it means conservatives are finally coalescing around him," said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Romney has to expand beyond the establishment to demonstrate he's got momentum and the party behind him."
Damore said Gingrich needs to hit the 30 percent mark on Saturday to show he can hold conservatives and battle for the GOP nomination through Super Tuesday in March, when the former House speaker has a chance to pick up some Southern states.
Paul "just needs to keep doing what he's doing," Damore said. "He's got a strategy -- it's not enough to win -- to keep plugging away to pick up delegates in caucus states."
On Saturday, 28 Nevada Republican delegates will be at stake and awarded proportionally by the percentage of the caucus vote each candidate gets.
At the core of Romney's strength in Nevada is support from fellow Mormons. The survey showed 85.5 percent of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said they planned to caucus for Romney compared with single-digit LDS support for the other candidates. Mormons made up one-quarter of GOP caucus-goers in 2008, although they are about 7 percent of the state population.
Romney also had more support than his GOP competitors among every other religious group as well, including Christians, Protestants, Catholics and others, according to the survey.
Gingrich led Romney and the GOP field among those Republicans who said they "strongly support" the tea party movement with 37 percent backing compared with 27 percent for Romney, 20 percent for Santorum and 9 percent for Paul. But Romney won backing from more than half of those Republicans who said they "somewhat support" the tea party and from those who support it "only a little."
"I think Romney is getting some traction there finally with the tea party," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with The Cook Political Report. "It's the electability argument. We saw the same thing in Florida. Now we're going to be looking for whether or not he is starting to solidify the conservative base."
The statewide telephone poll by the Cannon Survey Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas questioned 426 Republicans who said they plan to participate in the caucuses. The pollster called both land lines and cellphones Friday through Tuesday, before Romney won the Florida primary in a nasty battle with Gingrich. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.75 percentage points.
Only 5.4 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers described themselves as Hispanic. About 26 percent of Nevada's population is Hispanic, a group that leans heavily Democratic.
Older voters made up much of the GOP caucus-goer polling sample, with 47 percent over 55 years of age, 37 percent 35 to 54 and 16 percent under 35. More than seven out of 10 said they strongly and somewhat support the tea party.
Ryan Erwin, a senior Nevada adviser for the Romney campaign, called the poll results "encouraging" but played down expectations for surpassing the 51 percent finish four years ago.
Although tea party support remains divided, Erwin said members of the movement probably will gravitate to the candidate who has the best chance to beat President Barack Obama in November.
"There are certainly tea party supporters who actively believe Mitt Romney is the best candidate to beat Obama," Erwin said. "Because they are divided somewhat equally among the four candidates, it may be easier for them to come together for one GOP nominee."
George Harris, the co-chairman of finance for the Gingrich campaign, said internal polling shows the former House speaker tied with Romney in Nevada. He added that Romney did well in 2008 only because he was the sole candidate who spent a lot of time and money in the state.
"People are going to be surprised," Harris said. "We're in a fistfight, and we're here to fight. There's 47 states left to go and we're going to be winning a lot of different states, and he'll be the GOP nominee."
The Paul campaign sounded just as confident, saying the congressman could win Nevada, especially if turnout is 60,000 or below. In 2008, a total of 44,000 Republicans caucused, with Romney winning 22,649 and Paul picking up 6,087. Both have gained many more supporters since.
"If turnout is higher than 65,000 to 70,000, then more Romney people and more supporters of other candidates are coming up, then we might have some trouble," said Carl Bunce, the Nevada chairman of the Paul campaign. "But we have the numbers to win. We just have to turn them out."
Bunce dismissed the poll results, saying most Paul supporter refuse to participate or lie in surveys because of a bad experience in Nevada four years ago. He said Sen. John McCain's campaign did robocalls to identify Paul supporters and then sidelined them at the state party convention. McCain won the GOP nomination, but the state GOP convention was shut down before delegates could be counted and after Paul supporters tried to take over the meeting from the floor.
"A lot of the political activists don't answer those polls, or answer falsely," Bunce said. "I'm always skeptical of polls."
Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.