After victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney may march into Nevada for the Feb. 4 Republican presidential caucus facing few foes to halt his path to the GOP nomination unless one of several conservative contenders trips him up in South Carolina or Florida.
Members of the tea party movement in the Silver State are still looking for a conservative star such as Newt Gingrich to emerge from the pack as a consensus pick to get behind. Yet many of them also are ready to embrace Romney as their second choice to take on President Barack Obama.
'"We are so not decided," said Jeri Taylor-Swade, co-founder of a group called Tea Party & Republicans Uniting Nevada Conservatives. "But because we're Republicans, it doesn't matter who the GOP nominee is, we'll back him. It's true, Mitt Romney is not our first choice."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul remains Romney's biggest threat in Nevada, having finished behind him four years ago in the GOP caucus here. Paul, after coming in at No. 3 in Iowa last week and No. 2 in New Hampshire on Tuesday, plans to compete in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. But then he plans to skip Florida's Jan. 31 primary to focus on Nevada, his campaign said Wednesday.
"It is still a two-man race in Nevada, and other states moving forward -- the status quo Mitt Romney versus constitutional government Ron Paul," said Carl Bunce, chairman of Paul's campaign, which finds support among Nevada's libertarian set. "The Ron Paul campaign is a fight for the minds of voters about what the proper role of government should be. We believe we are winning that fight."
Paul is for drastically trimming back government spending and closing some federal agencies.
Gingrich acknowledged Wednesday that "the South Carolina primary is make or break" for his campaign, according to a plea emailed to supporters asking for money to continue the race. He is battling former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the conservative Southern vote. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman seems to be campaigning on the margins.
If the conservative vote is splintered in South Carolina and Romney wins the primary, the momentum from a third win could help him pick up Florida as losing contenders drop out before Nevada. Lowering expectations, Romney's campaign noted he finished fourth in South Carolina in 2008 and second in Florida, but it's clear the Republican is looking beyond the GOP field to Obama.
"Obama is certainly beginning to look like a one-term president," said Ryan Erwin, senior adviser to Romney in Nevada, adding that "nothing is easy in presidential politics and votes must be earned."
"Governor Romney has worked very hard, has built an incredible organization, has put together a strong team and has consistently shown that he is the best candidate to defeat Barack Obama and the best candidate to turn around the economy and get America and Nevada back to work," Erwin added.
The Nevada Democratic Party put out a memo that poked holes in Romney's wins. It said that his finishes with under 40 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and 25 percent in Iowa show he hasn't won over his own party and that a majority of Republicans still want "anybody but Romney."
"Mitt Romney is having a very difficult time sealing the deal with voters," the memo said.
Romney's biggest new threat is coming from Gingrich and a super Political Action Committee backed by a fresh $5 million donation from Las Vegas Sands chief Sheldon Adelson.
The Winning Our Future PAC plans to start airing ads in the Palmetto State on Thursday using clips from a documentary film that portrays Romney as a ruthless leader of Bain Capital. The private equity firm bought and sold companies, creating thousands of jobs in some cases but massive worker layoffs in others.
If the negative ads knock down Romney and lift Gingrich, Gingrich's campaign could see new life so that he makes his scheduled Feb. 2 campaign stops in Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City.
The political operatives working on Gingrich's campaign in Nevada said they expect him to battle Romney and Paul for a portion of the Silver State's 28 delegates on Feb. 4. The former House speaker is hoping, however, that his conservative competitors drop out to give his campaign room to grow.
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