Mitt Romney Hits Jackpot in the Nevada Caucuses

A huge victory in the caucuses brings Mitt one step closer to the nomination, even as his stumbling behavior raises doubts.

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Mitt is getting methodical.

In a contest whose outcome seemed preordained, Mitt Romney cruised to victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday, fueling a sense that he is on a glide path to the Republican nomination—or at least poised to have a very good February.

Romney appeared poised to capture about half the vote in a four-man race, an outstanding showing by any measure. The only real drama was a battle between Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul to finish a distant second. Each hovered around 20 percent, but the former speaker appears to have the edge. Rick Santorum, who hasn’t had a strong showing since Iowa, was running last.

According to a CNN entrance poll, just more than half of the electorate described itself as “very conservative,” and Romney captured 48 percent of this group, doubling Gingrich’s total. Mitt also took 48 percent of the white evangelical vote, based on MSNBC’s numbers.

Romney had a huge home-field advantage in a state he won with 51 percent of the vote four years ago. His religion is a plus in Nevada, where perhaps a quarter of those voting in the caucuses were Mormons. Nevada’s unemployment rate, nearly 13 percent, makes it fertile ground for a strong economic message. And caucus states put a premium on organization, a defining feature of Romney’s 50-state apparatus. All of which will come in handy in November, when Nevada, carried by Barack Obama four years ago, will become a crucial swing state.

Gingrich stumbled through a disorganized week in the state, whose weekend vote sets up Tuesday’s contests in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota.Gingrich made few appearances in Nevada, canceled some events, and spent little on advertising. He ratcheted up his attacks on Romney on Friday, saying: “I am ashamed of the negativity and the dishonesty that has characterized this campaign.” But if Gingrich has a strategy to recover in this week’s three-state showdown, it isn’t readily apparent.Little wonder, then, that Romney has been ignoring the former House speaker and training his rhetorical fire on President Obama.But while Romney was cashing in his chips in Nevada, it would be hard to say that he had a great week. At times he simply seems to lack rudimentary political skills.Just when he should have been riding high after thrashing Newt in Florida, Romney bought himself days of bad press by telling CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Yes, he meant that they have a safety net, but it reeked of an insensitive-rich-guy problem, and Romney took 48 hours to say he misspoke. This was the corporations-are-people Romney, who seems like a plutocrat even as he tries to strike an average-guy tone.As National Review’s Jonah Goldberg put it, “Great politicians on the morning after a big win, don’t force their supporters to go around defending the candidate from the charge that he doesn’t care about the poor. They just don’t.”An equally troubling trend for the former Massachusetts governor (but not the rest of us) is that the economy is picking up steam. Friday’s drop in the jobless rate, to 8.3 percent, brings the level to where it stood when Barack Obama took office.It sounds coldly calculating for a candidate to root for high unemployment, but the central rationale of Romney’s candidacy is that America needs a CEO to fix its ailing economy. The malaise about the 1992 economy helped Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush, and Romney will have a tougher time unseating an incumbent if the jobless picture is seen as improving.

After three strong months of job growth, Romney is reduced to making a more convoluted argument: yes, things are getting better even though Obama made them worse, but I will make them even better than he would. Of course, there are no guarantees that unemployment will continue on a downward path, but the president is the obvious beneficiary if the rate dips below 8 percent.

In a strange way, Romney may be hurt if Gingrich is fading as a serious threat for the nomination. When Newt was coming on strong after South Carolina, the conservative media and the old Bob Dole establishment ganged up on him, which had the effect of boosting Romney. Now that the Mitt limousine is back on cruise control, some conservatives are grappling with what they didn’t like about him in the first place.

Writing in Time, RedState founder Erick Erickson, a Gingrich backer, says: “Conservatives who hitched a ride with Romney did not expect him to run in 2012 like John McCain, let alone as the heir to Bush’s Big Government conservatism. The internecine fights we are witnessing are about a conservative movement starting to separate itself again from the Republican Party.”

Most on the right will fall into line this fall if Romney is taking on Obama, a prospect that each victory in states like Nevada makes a bit more likely. The question is whether they can muster the same degree of enthusiasm for a candidate whose conservative credentials—and political skills—remain suspect.