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Romney wins big in Nevada; Gingrich vows to fight on

Romney swept most categories of voter, showing particular strength among evangelical Christians.

In Nevada Saturday night, Mitt Romney won two big contests.

One was the Republican caucuses, where he cruised to a comfortable double-digit lead over Newt Gingrich. The other was the expectations game — doing as well as the polls had predicted, and in some ways better.

Romney swept most categories of voter, showing particular strength among evangelical Christians, according to entrance polls taken as caucus-goers arrived for the speechifying and voting.

Entrance polls showed Romney won a wide cross-section of Nevada voters, capturing moderates, conservatives, tea party supporters. Perhaps most important, he won among those who said they were backing the man they thought had the best chance of beating Barack Obama — by a whopping 74-18 percent over Gingrich, reported CNN.

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For much of the evening, the more interesting race in fact was between Gingrich and Ron Paul for second place.

To be sure, Romney went into Nevada with a lot going for him: A state organization that’s been in place since he won the 2008 caucuses. Ninety percent support among the large Mormon population there, which makes up about a quarter of registered Republicans. And a campaign war chest (and an independent super Pac) that allowed him to run many more ads than his rivals, many of them negative.

As the evening wore on, several news sources reported that Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands hotel and casino, whose extended family has given $11 million to Gingrich’s super PAC, had quietly given the Romney camp assurances that he’d be backing the former Massachusetts governor if he wins the nomination.

In his victory speech Saturday night, Romney (who could be seen surrounded by Secret Service agents, a new feature as he wades into crowds) dwelt not on his GOP rivals but on Obama. In a state with the nation’s highest unemployment and home foreclosure rates, Romney hammered what he called “the failed leadership of one man” responsible for a US economy Republicans say should have been turned around long ago.

In a line sure to be repeated throughout his campaign, Romney said, “This president began his presidency by apologizing for America. He should now be apologizing to America.”

For now, at least, Romney must have a bifurcated campaign strategy aimed at deflecting two lines of attack.

Gingrich and Rick Santorum are spending less time on Romney’s wealth and how he made it, instead emphasizing Romney’s time as the governor of Massachusetts. His record there, they say, was as a “moderate” (if not a “liberal”) on such issues as abortion and government-mandated healthcare.

As Romney gains strength and delegates in the primary-caucus, the Obama team is taking a different tack: Asserting that the wealthiest presidential candidate in US history earned his money largely by shutting down business and putting people out of work, that he’s out of touch with most Americans trying to make it through tough economic times. Comments such as “I like being able to fire people” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor” — even though they were taken out of context — are likely to be repeated over and over.

In his Saturday evening press conference, Gingrich went after the front-runner, labeling Romney a “Massachusetts moderate” who was “pro-abortion, pro-gun control, and pro-tax increase.”

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“I will debate him one-on-one, any time, any place,” Gingrich said. Unfortunately for the former House Speaker, there are no televised debates for the next several weeks.

But, he said, “I expect this debate will continue for a long time. We will go on to Tampa [for the GOP convention]. I’m not going to withdraw; in fact I’m pretty happy with where we are.”

Romney now has won three out of five contests and two in a row. There are many more nominating contests, many more convention delegates to win.

But for now, at least, Romney has major momentum, which he hopes will power him on to this coming week’s contests in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri, then Maine, Arizona, Michigan, and Washington before “Super Tuesday” on March 6 when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses.

Gingrich said his goal was to “find a series of victories which by the end of the Texas primary will leave us at parity” with Romney by early April.

In Nevada Saturday night, returns from 14 of 17 counties showed Romney with 42 percent support, Gingrich with 25 percent, Paul with 20 percent, and Santorum with 13 percent, according to the Associated Press.