Frontrunner Mitt Romney took his third win of the Republican presidential nomination race Saturday night with an easy double-digit victory in the Nevada caucuses.
It was the second win in a row for the former Massachusetts governor, who is trying to distance himself from three GOP challengers, all who claim they are not leaving the race anytime soon. With 71 percent of the vote counted, Romney won the support of 48 percent of Nevada voters, easily defeating Newt Gingrich at 23 percent and Ron Paul at 19 percent. Rick Santorum was in fourth at 11 percent.
Like he did in the Florida primary on Tuesday, Romney brushed aside his GOP rivals and focused his victory speech Saturday night on President Barack Obama.
"This president began his presidency by apologizing for America. He should now be apologizing to America," said Romney, who has won three of the GOP's first five contests.
His Nevada victory was not a surprise. Romney also won there decisively in 2008, taking 51 percent of the vote. This year he enjoyed strong backing from Nevada's large Mormon voting bloc and a solid ground operation leftover from four years ago. Romney also found success in the state by stressing the economy: Nevada's 12.6 unemployment rate in December was the highest in the nation.
"America needs a president who can fix the economy because he understands the economy. And I do, and I will," Romney said. "We're not going to settle for a president who tells us, it could be worse. My priority will be worrying about your job, not saving my own."
Romney was confident enough about his chances in Nevada that he left the state for part of Saturday to campaign in Colorado. Gingrich, meanwhile, did not hold any public events on Saturday until after the caucuses were completed. When he did campaign in the state this week, he spent his time depicting Romney as "Obama lite."
Gingrich's goal is to hang on until March when the race returns to some Southern states where he stands a better chance of repeating his victory in the South Carolina primary. But he will have to convince his top contributors to continue to fund a campaign that suffered from a lack of cash, staff, and campaign events in Nevada.
According to the Smart Media Group, Gingrich's campaign did not advertise on television at all in Nevada, while Romney spent $371,000 on TV ads there, slightly more than the $350,000 the Paul campaign invested. Santorum spent only $12,000 on television commercials in the state.
"We will continue the campaign all the way to Tampa," Gingrich pledged Saturday night, referring to the GOP convention in August. "I will be a candidate for president. I am not going to withdraw. I am actually pretty happy with where we are."
A defiant Gingrich, during a lengthy and at times testy Saturday night press conference in Las Vegas, added that he is "surprised by the degree to which the establishment has closed ranks and made quite clear that they are desperate over the prospect of a Gingrich presidency."
The next states on deck for Republicans are Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, and Missouri. Gingrich isn't on the ballot in Missouri. Contests in Arizona and Michigan follow in late February.
Romney won Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, and Michigan in 2008, and came in second that year to eventual GOP nominee John McCain in the Arizona senator's home state. Romney, who also received an endorsement from billionaire Donald Trump this week, is vying to rack up a series of February wins heading into the 10 state contests on March 6, aka "Super Tuesday."
Santorum did gain the support in Nevada of Sharron Angle, a Tea Party darling who earned the state's GOP U.S. Senate nomination in 2010 (but lost to Harry Reid). But that did not amount to many votes Saturday for former senator from Pennsylvania, who spent the day campaigning in Colorado.
Santorum, who is trying to insert himself as the better conservative alternative to Gingrich, said during an appearance Saturday that he hoped to "endanger" the former House speaker.
"This isn't a state where someone has a natural advantage," Santorum said of Colorado, as he spoke to a gathering in Montrose. "No one can stake a claim and say, 'He's going to win this state.' This is a wide-open race and you have an opportunity to reset this race."
Paul decided to campaign in Minnesota instead of Nevada on Saturday. The Texas congressman told an audience at a Rochester high school that "the one thing that is on our side is the American people are waking up."