Republican Presidential Campaign Moves West

Mitt Romney is expected to win in Nevada but the outcome in other states is less certain.

The Republican Party’s presidential primary race moves west over the next several days. After cementing his frontrunner status in southeastern Florida on Wednesday, Mitt Romney is expected to do well in Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada but the likely outcome in Colorado and Minnesota is less clear.

Romney, a Mormon, will likely appeal to fellow members of his church in Nevada who make up some 20 percent of the Republican electorate there.

When he last ran for the presidential nomination in 2008, Romney won the state’s caucuses easily. Newt Gingrich, however, polled at 25 percent in late January and both Ron Paul and Rick Santorum hope to do well in the Silver State. They hardly competed in Florida, where it was winner takes all, in order to focus on Nevada where delegates are allocated proportionately.

Twenty-eight delegates are at stake in the state that’s best known for its gambling industry in the cities of Las Vegas and Reno. Barack Obama carried Nevada in 2008 but only won the urban districts. The rest of the state is sparsely populated but very conservative if not libertarian.

Paul, whose campaign is staffed by supporters who are very enthusiastic about their cause, may do surprisingly well in Nevada, especially as the statewide Republican Party was thrown in disarray by a miserable 2010 midterm Senate race when Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle failed to beat the Democratic incumbent despite preelection poll numbers that suggested a Republican win.

The septuagenarian congressman from Texas could also exceed expectations in Colorado on February 7. A swing state like Nevada, Colorado’s rural areas trend Republican. Paul’s message of limited government and a noninterventionist foreign policy should resonate there. The president’s approval rating is just 40 percent across Colorado which is down from 52 percent in 2009, an above average drop in support according to Gallup.

The Nevada and Colorado caucuses are closed to registered Republicans which is a disadvantage to Paul who appeals to dissatisfied independent voters. Minnesota’s caucuses, which will also be on February 7, are open to non-Republicans but according to January polls, Gingrich enjoys an almost 20 percentage point lead over Mitt Romney in the Midwestern state.

Between them, Colorado and Minnesota wield 76 delegates and they are awarded proportionately. Even if Romney wins, the other three candidates could accumulate delegates for the national convention in Tampa, Florida in August. Gingrich and Paul have both vowed to stay in the race to the very end which raises the prospect of a brokered convention. If none of the presidential hopefuls manages to secure a majority of delegates before the convention, they could be unbound after several unsuccessful ballots and vote for a candidate who didn’t even participate in the primary contests.

There will also be an election in Missouri on February 7 but the outcome is officially meaningless. The state’s 52 delegates won’t be selected until March 17 when the state caucuses. Almost half of them will be awarded proportionately.

Mitt Romney is expected to carry most if not all of the states that vote in February. Newt Gingrich should have an opportunity to rebound in early March when, on Super Tuesday, ten states vote at once. Among them, the former House speaker’s home state of Georgia as well as Oklahoma and Tennessee, states in the Upper South that are solidly Republican and home to millions of evangelical Christians who wonder whether Romney really is socially conservative.

Obama is hugely unpopular in Oklahoma and Tennessee. His approval rating hovers around 30 and 37 percent in these states respectively. A majority of voters there will almost certainly support the Republican candidate in November’s election and may be tempted now to nominate the man who presents himself as a true conservative compared to the “Massachusetts moderate” which is how Gingrich likes to characterize his rival.