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Romney scores Nevada win as race heads to other states

By John Helton, CNN
updated 8:29 PM EST, Sun February 5, 2012
Mitt Romney speaks during a rally Thursday in Reno, Nevada.
Mitt Romney speaks during a rally Thursday in Reno, Nevada.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The former Massachusetts governor heads to the next phase as the frontrunner
  • Gingrich vows to stay in the race until the GOP convention
  • Rep. Ron Paul, former Sen. Rick Santorum looking ahead to other contests

Las Vegas (CNN) -- Mitt Romney swept into victory in the Nevada caucuses, sliding back into frontrunner status with his second win in a row as the race for the Republican nomination heads to other states.

The former Massachusetts governor moves to the next phase as the first candidate in this campaign cycle to score consecutive victories days after his Florida win.

CNN projected Romney won the caucuses Saturday night, leading the pack of contenders that includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum.

With more than 84% of the vote in Sunday, Romney led with about 49% while Gingrich had 22% and Paul had 19%.

Santorum, who had largely bypassed the state, had 11%. Those numbers were gathered from vote counters at caucus sites across the state and the state's Republican Party.

Romney thanked supporters at his campaign headquarters in Las Vegas, alluding to his 2008 win in Nevada.

"This isn't the first time you gave me your vote of confidence, but this time I'm going to take it to the White House," he said.

He turned his attention to President Barack Obama, accusing him of not doing enough to fix the home mortgage crisis and unemployment.

"America has also had enough of your kind of help," he said.

Romney entered the race as a frontrunner, and had largely ignored his Republican rivals as he focused on Obama. But as Gingrich rose to challenge him in polls, he was forced to address the other candidates.

During his victory speech Saturday, he kept his focus on the president.

"This president began his presidency by apologizing for America. He should now be apologizing to America," Romney told cheering supporters.

The only allusion he made to opponents was when he told supporters that he was the only one who could fix the economy, "unlike other people running for president."

His main contender, Gingrich, held a news conference accusing the Romney campaign of spreading rumors that he would drop out of the race, calling it "their greatest fantasy."

Gingrich reaffirmed his commitment to stay in the race, saying, "We will continue all the way to Tampa," where the Republican National Convention will be held in August.

Although he called his opponent a "Massachusetts moderate" instead of "Massachusetts liberal" as he has in the past, Gingrich said he believed he was the alternative to Romney "who has in his career been pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase and who ranks third from the bottom in creating jobs in the four years he was governor. "

Gingrich downplayed the Nevada results, pointing out that Romney, a Mormon, did well in "a very heavily Mormon state, a state which he carried in 2008."

Romney's Nevada win gives him a firm command of the bumpy GOP race. The former Massachusetts governor appeared to win in the Iowa caucuses but the contest was later awarded to Santorum when the vote was certified.

Romney scored a big win in New Hampshire but was then stunned in South Carolina by Gingrich. Romney scored a 14-point victory over Gingrich and the rest of the field in Tuesday's Florida primary and entered Saturday's contest with a sizable lead in polls.

The caucuses were open only to the state's more than 470,000 registered Republicans. Nevada's 28 delegates will be awarded proportionately based on the statewide vote.

Polls leading up to the vote had shown Gingrich trailing far behind Romney. At one point in the wake of a poor showing in the Florida primary, Gingrich advisers said he would concede the state and focus on more friendly states that vote in the March 6 Super Tuesday contests.

But ultimately, he chose to campaign in Nevada and didn't appear to make up much ground on Romney.

Nevada Rep. Joe Heck, who has been closely allied with Romney since his 2008 presidential bid, said the results of the caucuses should be a wake up call for Gingrich.

"I hope he takes the message that it's time to withdraw gracefully and not continue to divide the party," Heck told reporters in Las Vegas.

Establishment Republicans fear that the longer the campaign goes on, the level of vitriol between Gingrich and Romney will result in a damaged nominee and give Democrats ammunition from Republicans themselves.

Gingrich isn't expected to do well in the low-level contests in February, but he could rebound on Super Tuesday, where he'll find friendlier voters in March 6 Super Tuesday contests in Georgia -- which he represented in Congress -- and in neighboring Tennessee and Oklahoma.

The former House speaker's stunning victory in the South Carolina primary, in which he erased Romney's double-digit lead in polls, propelled him to the lead in national polls. But Romney and groups that support him bombarded Gingrich with negative ads and attack stump speeches questioning everything from his ethics to his mental stability and toppled him going into Florida.

While Romney and Gingrich spent caucus night in Nevada, Paul and Santorum were looking ahead to Tuesday caucus states -- Paul in Minnesota and Santorum in Colorado. Missouri also votes in a nonbinding primary Tuesday.

Campaigning in Colorado, Santorum said he expects to win one of the three events next week.

"I expect to win the nomination," he said. "I feel very good about how it is going. This race is a long way from being over."

The Silver State could almost be considered home-field advantage for Romney. He won the caucuses there four years ago in his first bid for the GOP nomination, grabbing 51% of the vote, far ahead of Paul, who was in second place at 14%.

Nevada is a battleground state in the general election, having voted for the winning presidential candidate 10 out of the last 11 elections. Obama beat McCain by 12 points there in 2008.

CNN's Jim Acosta, Chelsea Carter, Candy Crowley, Phil Gans, Peter Hamby and Gabriella Schwarz contributed to this report

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