Romney takes Tea Party vote from Gingrich in Nevada

Mon, Feb 6, 2012, 00:00

THE REPUBLICAN front-runner Mitt Romney’s 25-point victory over Newt Gingrich in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday night makes him the winner of three out of five contests so far, and the only candidate to have won two elections in a row.

Most important for Mr Romney, he demonstrated twice in four days – in Florida on Tuesday, and in Nevada on Saturday – he can win the conservative vote that Mr Gingrich claimed to own.

Entrance polls in Nevada showed high percentages of conservative voters, including Tea Party supporters and evangelical Christians, voting for Mr Romney.

Two issues are fuelling Mr Romney’s lead: the economy and electability. Nevada has the unhappy distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the US, at 12.6 per cent, and the highest number of mortgage foreclosures.

Sixty per cent of Nevada caucus-goers said the economy was the number one issue, while 40 per cent said a candidate’s ability to defeat President Barack Obama was the most important factor.

Nevada is one of nine states that shifted from Republican to Democrat in the last presidential election. Mr Obama won there by 12 percentage points, but his approval rating dropped to 41 per cent at the end of 2011.

In his victory speech, Mr Romney sought to capitalise on Nevadans’ disillusionment. “I’ve walked in Nevada neighbourhoods, blighted by abandoned homes,” he said, “where people wonder why Barack Obama failed them.”

As in his Florida victory speech on January 31st, Mr Romney ignored his Republican rivals to ratchet up criticism of Mr Obama.

Noting the Obama administration had promised to keep joblessness below 8 per cent, he warned, “Not so fast, Mr President . . . America has had enough of your kind of help!”

So confident is Mr Romney he took yesterday off before resuming campaigning in Maine, Minnesota and Colorado, which will hold non-binding caucuses this week.

Mr Romney will try to elaborate a more compelling message during the lull before the next primaries, in Arizona and Michigan on February 28th.

Mr Gingrich had promised to outline a new, more positive strategy in a late-night press conference on Saturday night and on yesterday’s morning talk shows.

Instead, he mocked the Romney campaign’s “greatest fantasy” that he would drop out of the race, and attacked the front-runner as having been “pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase” when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Mr Gingrich criticised one of the front-runner’s biggest gaffes, but not for Mr Romney’s insensitivity.

“He says he doesn’t worry about the very poor because they have a safety net,” Mr Gingrich said.

“Their safety net has become a spider web. It traps them at the bottom. Real conservatives have tried for years to develop a trampoline effect where we help people leave poverty.”

Efforts by the former speaker of the house “to draw a series of very sharp distinctions” between himself and Mr Romney seem to be failing.

“Romney has become the stealth Tea Party candidate, endorsing the essence of the movement while remaining unburdened by its public label,” Theda Skocpol of Harvard University and co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism wrote in the Washington Post.

Mr Romney has moved far to the right on immigration, one of the most important issues to the Tea Party.

He promises to build a fence along the border with Mexico, and to veto the Dream Act for all but the military.

The Dream Act would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants who were brought to the US as children.

Mr Romney has also endorsed the House plan to gut Medicare, wants to let the housing market “hit the bottom” and has criticised the Obama administration for evoking a possible end to the combat mission in Afghanistan next year.

His sharp turn right carries a price: his support among independent voters plummeted from 45 per cent to 23 per cent in eight weeks from late November to late January.

Mr Gingrich yesterday predicted he will perform well in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas.

But his campaign showed how frayed its organisation is in Nevada, with scheduling conflicts and a false, premature report that the billionaire Donald Trump was about to endorse Mr Gingrich.

Mr Gingrich reportedly holed up for four days in the Venetian and Palazzo casinos, owned by his main backer, Sheldon Adelson, to contemplate his new strategy. He seemed unaware of the January jobs report when asked about it on Friday.

In perhaps the cruellest blow to Mr Gingrich, Mr Adelson, whose main concern is the security of Israel, has let it be known that if Mr Romney secures the Republican nomination, he will back him.

Mr Romney has promised that his first journey as president would be to Israel.