Supporters of Mitt Romney in Nevada 390 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
LAS VEGAS - Republican front-runner Mitt Romney cruised to an easy victory in Nevada on Saturday, crushing his three remaining rivals and taking firm command of the party's volatile presidential nominating race.
With 10 percent of the vote counted, Romney had 48 percent, more than double that of each of his closest rivals, former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich and US Representative Ron Paul.
The victory was Romney's second in a row and his third in the first five contests in the state-by-state battle to find a Republican challenger to US President Barack Obama in November's general election.
It propels him into the next contests - in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri on Tuesday - with a big wave of momentum.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, took control of the Nevada contest early after recapturing his front-runner status with a convincing win over Gingrich in Florida last Tuesday.
He benefited from a huge financial and organizational edge in Nevada, which he won with 51 percent of the vote during his failed 2008 presidential bid. With a faltering economy and a big bloc of Mormon voters, the state was friendly terrain for Romney, a Mormon and former head of a private equity firm.
Romney stressed his business background as a cure for the state's ailing economy, which suffers from the country's highest state unemployment rate, 12.6 percent in December, and the highest home foreclosure rate.
Entrance polls in Nevada showed that was a persuasive argument, with the economy ranking as the top issue and Romney winning over nearly two-thirds of the voters who listed it as their top concern.
Romney hopes Nevada will kick off a February winning streak that could position him for a knockout blow to Gingrich during the 10 "Super Tuesday" contests on March 6 - or sooner.
In addition to Tuesday's contests, Maine will wrap up its week-long caucuses next Saturday, while Arizona and Michigan hold their contests on Feb. 28.
Romney won Colorado, Minnesota, Maine and Michigan in 2008. He came in second in Arizona to native son and eventual nominee John McCain, an Arizona senator. He finished third in Missouri.
Gingrich hopes to hang in the race until March, when there will be contests in several southern states where the former Georgia congressman and US House of Representatives speaker believes he can do well.
He campaigned in Nevada but did not spend any money on advertising in the state. Former US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the fourth candidate in the race, skipped Nevada entirely.
The caucuses were held at 125 sites around the state, with voters breaking up into small groups by precinct to tout their candidates and debate their choices. Several Romney supporters said they were backing him because he could win in November.
"I think he's the only one who can beat Obama," said George Peterson, a retired Air Force veteran who attended a caucus at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas.
Gayle Darin, an executive assistant at the Bellagio hotel, said she thought it was time for Republicans to pick a candidate and begin to focus on Obama.
"A lot of people have rallied behind Romney now," she said. "We've got to step up and get Obama out of office."
At least 1,114 delegates are needed to secure the nomination in August. Nevada will award 28 delegates and split them proportionally based on the vote total.