LAS VEGAS — Republicans in Nevada are poised to do what no one has yet done in the 2012 Republican presidential campaign — sustain momentum.
Their caucuses on Saturday are likely to deliver a solid victory to Mitt Romney. That would mark the first time this year that a presidential candidate has won two states in a row. After taking Florida Tuesday by a wide margin, a decisive Nevada win would send Romney rushing into February with wins in three out of the first five voting states and a commanding lead toward winning the Republican presidential nomination.
He still has to defeat former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
But the political landscape in Nevada favors the former Massachusetts governor. Polls show him with a big lead, thanks in part to a large population of his fellow Mormons. And interviews with Republican voters suggest that they're not surging to Gingrich, they like Santorum but think him too tame to take on President Barack Obama, and even some Paul supporters have doubts about him as a general election candidate.
Key for almost every Republican in Nevada: Finding the champion who can defeat Obama and turn the government and economy in a different direction. This state has the nation's highest unemployment and one of the worst housing markets. That puts a premium on finding a candidate who's credible on the economy, and Romney is running primarily as the economy's Mr. Fix-It.
The caucuses will award 28 delegates, divided proportionately among the candidates based on their support.
To many, Romney's experience in business and in turning around the Olympics make him the go-to guy.
"This fiscal crisis didn't happen overnight and it's going to take a lot to turn it around," said Diana Roy of Las Vegas, who works for a mortgage company after being out of work for two years. "We need someone with management experience. A professional."
"I saw what he did for the Olympics. He can bring people together and get things done," said Marsha Borders of Las Vegas, who owns an auto racing company. (Romney took over leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah after a bribery scandal threatened to ruin them, and he delivered success.)
To others, Gingrich's experience leading the Republicans to power in the House of Representatives in 1994 after 40 years in the minority and his work there as speaker make him the only one who could get things through Congress.
"He dealt with government," said Dale Mellen, a retiree from Las Vegas. "You need to know how the system works to get the economy working, to get the country back where we should be."
Santorum, who's pitched himself as an issues-oriented conservative, has struck a chord with Republicans weary of the personal attacks between Romney and Gingrich. It hasn't been enough, however.
"I like that argument. I don't like the mud slinging," said Ellen Herr, a school district worker from Las Vegas. However, she hedged on Santorum: "I'm not sure he's strong enough." She was still considering him, but she was also looking at Romney.
"I like him," said Patricia Messinger of Las Vegas, regarding Santorum. She works in a retail store after losing her job as a real estate agent and her home. However, she added: "But he doesn't have the chutzpah to go after Obama," Her choice? The more assertive Gingrich.
Paul hopes to score well in the caucuses, where turnout is typically light because voters must participate in meetings rather than merely cast a ballot, which tends to reward candidates such as Paul who have passionate supporters.
Kirk Smith, an Air Force officer from Las Vegas, was eager to support Paul in a caucus Saturday, drawn to his libertarian pitch of a radically leaner federal government and far fewer military interventions overseas.
"He's the only who's able to cut back the debt," said Smith. "And I like his foreign policy. Now we're talking about going to war with Iran. It mirrors Iraq. It's all what-ifs. There are no solid facts."
However, Paul's fate may be running up against the desire of many Republicans to win in November.
Chris Sapia, a retiree from Las Vegas, showed up to see Paul at a Las Vegas hotel this week, leaning his way but stopping short.
"Paul is a breath of fresh air. But can he go the distance?" she said. "I might have to go with Romney. He's very slick, and that makes me nervous. But I am worried about the country's finances. That is his forte. Romney might be a better money manager."
A poll for the Las Vegas Review Journal found Romney with the support of 45 percent of likely caucus attendees, Gingrich with 25, Santorum with 11 and Paul with 9 percent.
Romney scores well with most voter blocs, but his support among fellow Mormons drives his share of the total higher. The poll found that 85.5 percent of Mormons support him. They made up 25 percent of the caucus vote in 2008.
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