The pressure is on the rest of the Republican presidential field to knock Mitt Romney down a peg after the former Massachusetts governor sailed to victory in the Nevada caucuses following his big Florida win earlier in the week.
Romney won Nevada by a decisive double-digit margin. The field charges next into a quartet of contests that will either fuel or check Romney’s momentum.
Newt Gingrich, who just two weeks ago looked like the comeback candidate, held an unusual press conference late Saturday night to, among other things, assure the public he is not dropping out and take a series of swipes at Romney.
The former House speaker predicted his chances would improve the longer the race goes on. He predicted that by the Texas primary in April, he might be able to reclaim “frontrunner” status.
“There are some very big differences evolving in this campaign as we move forward,” Gingrich said. “I believe the vast majority of Republicans across the country are going to want an alternative to a Massachusetts moderate.”
But as Gingrich assailed his rival as “dishonest,” and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul vowed to take their struggling candidacies into the next states, Romney cultivated the image of a general election candidate.
At his victory rally in Las Vegas, Romney took the same approach as he did after the Florida race – utterly ignoring his Republican opponents, keeping his focus on President Obama and polishing his own brand.
“America needs a president who can fix the economy because he understands the economy, and I do, and I will,” Romney said.
Romney said the president should “be apologizing to America,” describing him as a leader who “demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy.” Romney also seemed to be honing his potential general election message, downplaying recent improvements in the unemployment rate as modest and disconnected from the Obama administration’s policies.
“This president’s misguided policies made these tough times last longer,” Romney said.
The former Massachusetts governor in Nevada scored the first back-to-back win of the campaign. His victory cut across virtually every demographic group and builds Romney’s lead in the delegate count, though Nevada is only the first in a string of lesser contests following the first four behemoth primary battles.
The candidates head next into Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri and Maine, though the Missouri election is more of a beauty contest as it doesn’t determine delegates.
Gingrich, defiant and undeterred, vowed to wear Romney down.
The former House speaker held a lengthy press conference after the caucuses to outline the way forward and assure supporters he plans to take his campaign all the way to the convention in Tampa.
Gingrich then proceeded to tear into his GOP rival, describing Romney as a pro-gun control, pro-tax increase candidate who is “fundamentally dishonest” in debates.
“If you can’t tell the truth as a candidate for president, how can the country possibly expect you to lead as president?” Gingrich said.
The candidate said he would not withdraw, calling that idea the “greatest fantasy” of the Romney campaign.
With 71 percent of precincts reporting, Romney was pulling 48 percent in Nevada. Gingrich had 23 percent and Paul had 19 percent, with the race for second too close to call. Santorum, with 11 percent, will place last, Fox News projects.
Nevada offers a modest delegate haul, with 28 convention delegates at stake. Romney led the field going into the race with 87, followed by Gingrich with 26, Santorum with 14 and Paul with four. It takes 1,144 delegates to win.