Nevada not a lock for Romney

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / February 14, 2011

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LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney has a lot riding on Nevada as he readies his early-state strategy for a possible Republican primary campaign, but changes in the state’s caucus rules and a surge of Tea Party movement activism will make the state a tougher environment for him than in 2008, when Romney romped with more than 50 percent of the vote.

Nevada is among the first four states in the tentative primary schedule, and it holds outsized importance for the former Massachusetts governor. If he runs for president, as appears likely, he would not be expected to win two of the other early states: Iowa and South Carolina.

Under almost any scenario, that means he must win in New Hampshire. And Nevada, coming just after the Granite State, would present the second key test of his strength.

By the numbers, Romney — who is scheduled to visit Las Vegas today — should perform strongly in the Silver State. An estimated 7.5 percent of Nevada residents share Romney’s Mormon faith, and exit polls showed Mormons accounted for one in four caucus voters in 2008.

But although he would start the 2012 Nevada contest with a formidable organization and as the overwhelming favorite, the landscape in this Western state is more hostile.

Seeking to become more than a primary backwater bypassed by most candidates, Nevada changed its caucus rules for next year’s campaign to make the outcome binding on its delegates to the Republican National Convention.

The intent was to increase the state’s prominence in the primaries, and it is working. Nevada is attracting stronger interest from such would-be candidates as Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, who have made early visits and are planning more.

The rightward tug of insurgents in the Republican Party, meanwhile, has added a measure of antiestablishment volatility to the Nevada electorate that was largely absent four years ago and could seriously hurt Romney, whose health care plan in Massachusetts, used as the model for the national overhaul last year, is widely despised by conservatives.

“Mitt Romney has a strong Mormon base of support in Nevada that will continue,’’ said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist who is planning to host candidate forums at a bar with a mechanical bull, just south of the Vegas strip. “The biggest hurdle for Mitt Romney to overcome is Romneycare.’’

Romney, who is expected to announce his candidacy in the spring, declined requests for an interview. Like most other potential candidates, Romney has been quietly testing the waters for a run. He appeared last week in Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event that attracts many presidential aspirants. He will visit Las Vegas today and tomorrow to speak at a business convention and meet with campaign donors.

Romney is ahead in the polls in Nevada, and his supporters maintain he can attract Tea Party movement support by talking about fiscal conservatism and other issues important to the party’s right wing.

“No one candidate is going to get every Tea Party vote in Nevada,’’ said Ryan Erwin, a top political consultant in the state who is prepared to lead Romney’s state operation. “But regardless of whether we are talking about activists in the Tea Party movement or those who simply share the philosophy, voters focused on balanced budgets and fiscal restraint in Nevada are largely Romney people.’’

Romney has been defending the 2006 Massachusetts health plan, the signature accomplishment of his gubernatorial administration, as an example of a state exercising its powers to solve problems within its borders. But he criticizes the Obama plan as a federal overreach that usurps states’ rights.

That argument has yet to appease Tea Party activists.

Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-backed candidate who stunned the GOP by winning Nevada’s Senate primary last year before losing to majority leader Harry Reid, would not criticize Romney directly in an interview. But she said the Massachusetts health plan will be a factor in the Nevada election.

“It failed, and we know that this Obamacare is unconstitutional,’’ she said. “I think that those kinds of things are going to come into play during the presidential election.’’

Surveys of Republican Nevada voters have shown Romney with a moderate lead. A poll conducted last month by Public Policy Polling put Romney at 31 percent, compared with Sarah Palin (19 percent), Gingrich (18 percent), and Mike Huckabee (14 percent).

The mood is uncertain a year before the Nevada caucus (tentatively scheduled for Feb. 18, 2012). A billboard on I-215 near Las Vegas warns of the some of the dangers for establishment candidates like Romney: “Ron Paul 2012.’’ The Texas Republican congressman finished second behind Romney four years ago, and conservative activists want him back in the race.

High unemployment, which at 14 percent was the worst in the country in December, and foreclosures are big issues in Nevada and helped fuel voter anger in 2010.

In a dozen recent interviews with Nevada Republicans, support for Romney was mixed.

“The key issue here is jobs, jobs, jobs,’’ said Robert Sulliman, a security services manager. “Who better to make things happen than Mitt Romney?’’

But those who identified themselves as aligned with the Tea Party tended to oppose him.

“I’m not a fan,’’ said Bettye Gilmour, a 67-year-old retired social worker. “He’s very presidential-looking, but he’s too much of a politician.’’

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