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Romney supporters in Elko (AP/Photo by Ted S. Warren)

Nevada advantage

Politics | Mitt Romney, boosted by Mormon support, is poised to win Saturday's Silver State caucus

After two earlier defeats in evangelically strong states like Iowa and South Carolina, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney is poised to claim a convincing victory Saturday in the Mormon stronghold of Nevada.

According to the latest numbers from Public Policy Polling, Romney leads 50 percent to 25 percent over top challenger Newt Gingrich. Ron Paul comes in third at 15 percent while Rick Santorum is at 8 percent in Friday's poll.

Romney, who has won two of the four early contests, including a 14-point victory over Gingrich's in Tuesday's Florida primary, sounded confident speaking before the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal Thursday evening.

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"I want to win in Nevada, and I think we will," he said. "I think we have good support. But, then again, it's about which groups mobilize, how many people are turned out by various groups."

The group that promises to give Romney the biggest Nevada boost will be his fellow Mormons. In the 2008 Nevada caucus, Romney handily won the state 51 percent to 14 percent over Paul. Nearly a quarter of all GOP caucus voters in 2008 were Mormon, and 95 percent of them supported Romney.

But Public Policy Polling's latest survey reveals that Romney is also winning over Nevada voters who describe themselves as "very conservative" by a 43 to 34 percent margin over Gingrich.

Despite the expected Romney win, the week leading up to Saturday's Nevada vote has not been completely kind to the former Massachusetts governor. Not long after his Florida win, Romney, in an interview with CNN, responded to a question about his ability to connect with struggling Americans with an answer that included, "I'm not concerned about the very poor."

Liberal critics and conservative opponents pounced, relishing the chance to muddy Romney's clear victory in the Sunshine State.

Romney supporters argued that his entire answer should be interpreted as Romney's ruminations on a campaign strategy that is focused on winning the middle class: "And by the way, I'm in this race because I care about Americans," Romney told CNN's Soledad O'Brien. "I'm not concerned about the very poor; we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich; they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling, and I'll continue to take that message across the nation."

Democrats painted Romney as out of touch. Gingrich seized on the controversy by reading the comment aloud to crowds in Nevada.

"I really believe that we should care about the very poor, unlike Gov. Romney, but I believe we should care differently than Barack Obama," the former House speaker said. "I'm fed up with people in either party dividing Americans against each other. I'm concerned about all the American people."

Santorum, after spending time earlier in the week in Nevada, was campaigning Friday in Hannibal, Mo., in anticipation of Tuesday's primary in the Show-Me State. The former senator from Pennsylvania said Romney's comments "sort of sent a chill down my spine as a conservative and a Republican."

Romney tried to blunt the negative media wave by apologizing on Wednesday. "I misspoke," he told a Nevada political reporter. "Plain and simple."

Meanwhile Paul continued to draw crowds with his anti-big government message.

"The wonderful thing is if you truly want prosperity and you want your life back you have to believe in the cause of liberty," Texas congressman told a Reno gathering. "If you are truly motivated to help your fellow man … you would have to believe in freedom and the free market."

Romney's other political hurdle occurred Friday with the release of a new jobs report showing the unemployment rate has dropped to 8.3 percent. The figure, the lowest level of Obama's presidency, could hinder the economic focus of Romney's campaign. Romney has made jobs his top message, especially in his speeches where he focuses more on Obama than his current GOP rivals.

Romney kept up his aggressive stance on Friday, arguing that the employment numbers should have been better.

"This president has not helped the process, he's hurt it," Romney said to local businessmen in Sparks, Nev. "[The economy] has taken a lot longer than it should have to come back, in part because of the policies of this administration. For that, the president deserves the blame that he'll receive in this campaign."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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