Decision deflates Nevada supporters

They loved Mitt Romney in Nevada. Can they love again?

Nevada Republicans who had backed the former Massachusetts governor were in mourning Thursday, after Romney’s surprise announcement that he would not continue to pursue the presidency.

“I felt sad for a friend,” said Sean Fellows, a Republican candidate for state Assembly who supported Romney. “I’ve never felt so connected to the presidential race. That was one of the things he was able to do: People felt connected to him. He wasn’t CEO Romney or Governor Romney. He was Mitt.”

Of the 44,000 Republicans who attended the Jan. 19 presidential caucuses here, more than half went to support Romney. His campaign, which organized a robust grass-roots effort when other candidates were mostly ignoring the contest, was largely responsible for the higher-than-expected turnout on the Republican side.

Romney spent more than 10 days in the state and deployed multiple photogenic family members, including his wife and sons.

Fellows recalls making hundreds of calls not only in Nevada, but later to Floridians and Californians. He and his fellow Romney volunteers saw in their candidate a results-oriented businessman with “strong moral fiber.”

Fellows, who is Catholic, acknowledged that Romney’s Mormon faith might have been an obstacle in parts of the country where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is less familiar than it is here. He said he was disappointed if people of faith elsewhere weren’t able to see commonalities.

According to entrance polls, about a quarter of Nevada Republican caucus-goers were Mormon and of those, more than 90 percent supported Romney. That means church members accounted for half of Romney’s total vote.

Nevada’s Republican caucuses elected precinct delegates separately from the straw-poll vote for presidential candidates, but it is likely that many of the thousands of delegates whose election made them eligible to attend upcoming county GOP conventions were Romney supporters.

To Ryan Erwin, a Nevada strategist for the Romney campaign, Thursday was a day to celebrate the candidate and regroup. Today or over the weekend, he said, he would reach out to the network of volunteers and supporters to encourage them to stay politically involved despite what many felt as a personal blow.

“We’ll talk to them and encourage them to support the nominee and stay active in the Republican party,” he said. “Governor Romney’s message of change is one that doesn’t go away. A lot of people have voted and volunteered for Governor Romney. If his supporters aren’t involved, Republicans will have a very significant problem winning races here in Nevada and across the country.”

Sen. John McCain is almost assured the nomination. Erwin said he was sure Romney’s supporters, after licking their wounds, would be able to get behind him if that’s the case.

Many die-hard conservatives can’t stand McCain for his stances on issues like immigration and campaign-finance reform and for what they view as a distaste for party loyalty on the part of the famously maverick senator. On Thursday, McCain spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, humbly appealing for their support.

McCain supporter Robert Uithoven, a Reno-based political consultant, on Thursday already was informally reaching out to Romney supporters, “talking about why I supported John McCain a year ago and why I still support him today,” he said.

“People get emotionally involved in campaigns,” he said. “They’re going to have to draw their own conclusions and make up their own mind about him. It was a hard-fought battle, and it might take some time, but that’s OK. We’ve got a lot of time to get it done.”

In Nevada, McCain could be hurt by his overt support for the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and his opposition to wagering on college sports. Uithoven acknowledged those were potential liabilities, but hinted that there was plenty of room to cast doubt on the Democrats’ bona fides on the same issue.

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, another strong Romney acolyte, also admitted Yucca Mountain could hurt McCain here. But Gansert said she would strongly urge Republicans to get behind their standard-bearer.

“As Governor Romney said, we need to beat the Democrats,” she said. Whatever McCain’s shortcomings, “I still believe that there needs to be a Republican president. … I think one thing that Governor Romney has done is move John McCain further to the right. That will help conservatives support him.”

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2919.

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