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Romney leaves Las Vegas holding all the cards

By Rebecca Sinderbrand
updated 10:33 AM EST, Mon February 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney continues his momentum with double-digit win at Nevada caucuses
  • Mormon voters headed to polls in force to support Romney
  • Newt Gingrich vows to stay in race all the way until GOP convention in Tampa

(CNN) -- He may be a non-gambler, but Mitt Romney had a good night in Vegas. He left town as the night's big winner, capturing his second strong victory in a row.

The result was no surprise; but the blocs he won on his way to a majority of the vote were.

This is a state where nearly half of Republicans describe themselves as not just conservative, but "very conservative." It's also a closed primary, where the only voters weighing in are part of the Republican base. But Romney decisively captured conservatives, tea partiers and evangelicals on his way to a win.

Just how big was Romney's win? It was so dominant he drew more support than the rest of the field combined. A quarter of Saturday's voters were Mormon, and 9 in 10 of those voters backed Romney. However,as his campaign was quick to point out, even if you take those voters out of the mix, the former Massachusetts governor would still have walked away with a double-digit advantage.

There were a few sour notes for Romney tonight. One of the few groups he lost were self-identified independents -- a bloc Republicans need to win big to beat President Obama in this battleground state come this fall. That group went instead to Ron Paul.

Two days after his "poor" comments captured headlines, those making less than $30,000 were the only income category that failed to favor him, splitting nearly evenly between Newt Gingrich, Paul and Romney.

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But heading into a string of contests in states he captured during his 2008 primary run, Romney's got the wind at his back. He kept his fire focused squarely on President Barack Obama during his victory speech in a state Republicans will be battling for in the fall.

The other candidates all came up short in their first stab at the long-game delegate math they've staked their campaigns on -- but despite a potential second-place finish, Newt Gingrich may well be leaving Las Vegas the night's biggest loser.

Despite early signals from his campaign downplaying the state in light of Romney's natural advantages there, he's been camped here since Wednesday, almost entirely in the Las Vegas area. While Rick Santorum held events on Saturday in Colorado and Ron Paul in Minnesota -- two states weighing in next Tuesday -- Gingrich kept the focus on his Nevada showing by making no campaign stops at all. His first appearance of the day was his response to the Nevada results; and instead of giving a traditional candidate's speech, the former speaker held a news conference, oddly ceding control over his election night storyline to process-obsessed campaign reporters.

The final Saturday night image of Mitt Romney was a grinning candidate surrounded by a throng of cheering, chanting, sign-waving supporters. The Gingrich takeaway: an alternately subdued and combative candidate standing alone on stage, fighting off tough questions about his campaign's survival odds.

Gingrich has plenty of fight left in him. He ended the night pledging to take the primary battle all the way to the Republican convention in Tampa, but he exits Nevada a wounded warrior, facing old questions about organization and discipline.

Signals from his campaign saying that Gingrich wouldn't waste a lot of effort on Nevada were undercut by defiant statements from the candidate himself.

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As the week wore on, the infighting rumors that led to his campaign's near-implosion last year reappeared.

On Friday, his campaign seemed unsettled by unexpectedly strong January jobs figures. Several hours after the numbers were released, Gingrich still insisted he hadn't seen them, and aides didn't release a formal response until nine hours after the fact.

Now, after swinging from a positive strategy in the race's first contest to a negative strategy in the states that followed, his team is reportedly poised to position the candidate squarely back in positive territory -- a late re-branding effort that may leave some voters scratching their heads, particularly given his tough election night attacks on Romney.

The Nevada entrance polls highlighted some of Gingrich's biggest challenges heading into a tough month of contests.

Voters whose top priority this year is beating Obama -- the No. 1 concern of those who answered entrance poll questions -- chose Romney. However, those who thought the most important concern was picking a true conservative didn't go for Gingrich; voters in this libertarian-oriented Western contest instead backed Paul. In a race that barely ventures south of the Mason-Dixon line or east of the Mississippi for the next few weeks, Gingrich's more traditional brand of conservatism, a major selling point for Southern voters, may not carry him as far.

Paul once again showed his strength with independents and young voters, capturing those categories tonight, but they may not be enough to carry him to a strong second-place win.

Santorum made smart scheduling moves, barely setting foot in Nevada to minimize the impact of an inevitable loss here in a state Romney won overwhelmingly in 2008. But he barely broke into double digits -- a disappointing showing by any measure.

Plus, the road doesn't get any easier from here: Colorado, Minnesota, two of the three states which vote Tuesday, are both states Romney captured decisively in 2008.

In fact, despite the other candidates' constant invocation of delegate math and the long game, tonight's results highlight the fact that these would-be insurgents face the opposite circumstances Barack Obama did four years ago. This time around, the frontrunner is the one with the organizational and ground game advantages in upcoming contests. Unlike Obama, they're nowhere near fundraising parity with the favorite. The longer they continue without big wins or significant delegate hauls, the less likely they are to catch up on either front.

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