With a huge lead in polls, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney appears poised for an easy win in Nevada's caucuses on Saturday that would put him in firm command of the party's seesawing presidential nominating race.
A Nevada victory would be Romney's second win in a row and his third in the first five contests in the state-by-state battle to find a Republican challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama, fueling a growing sense of momentum for the former Massachusetts governor.
Go out and caucus tomorrow. Get out there, Romney pleaded with supporters at his final Nevada campaign stop on Friday night, in a parking lot outside a pizza restaurant in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas.
Two polls taken this week in Nevada showed Romney with a lead of 20 points or more over top rival Newt Gingrich after Romney recaptured his front-runner status with a convincing win in Florida on Tuesday.
With a faltering economy and a big Mormon population, Nevada is friendly territory for Romney, a Mormon and former head of a private-equity firm. He captured 51 percent of the vote in 2008 to win the state during his failed 2008 presidential bid.
Romney has stressed his business background as a cure for the ailing economy in Nevada, which has the highest state unemployment rate, 12.6 percent in December, and the highest home-foreclosure rate.
This has been a tough three years, Romney said in Henderson, focusing his attacks on Obama. It's time now for Barack Obama to get out of the way.
Romney hopes Nevada's caucuses will launch a February winning streak that could position him for a knockout blow to Gingrich during the 10 Super Tuesday contests on March 6 -- or even sooner.
Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri all will have nominating contests on Tuesday. Maine will wrap up its weeklong caucuses next Saturday, and Arizona and Michigan will hold their votes on Feb. 28.
Romney won Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, and Michigan during his failed 2008 presidential bid. He came in second in Arizona to native son and eventual nominee John McCain, a U.S. senator, and finished third in Missouri.
Gingrich is hoping to hang in the race until March, when there will be contests in several Southern states where the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker from Georgia believes he can do well.
At a campaign stop in Las Vegas on Friday, he called himself the candidate of people power versus money power, returning to his theme that Romney is a flawed product of the elite and a Wall Street favorite.
But some Romney supporters say they are not turned off by his vast wealth even though Gingrich has made it a campaign issue.
To me, that's a good thing, Kim Kahn, an instructional assistant at a Henderson elementary school, said of Romney's millions. It takes a lot to earn what he did.
Bart Hatfield, a general contractor in Henderson, said he would back Romney because he's a businessman. That's what we need in Washington.
The two other candidates in the Republican race, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, also have pledged to keep fighting beyond Nevada. Santorum will campaign in Colorado on Saturday, and Paul will visit Minnesota.
Romney will turn his attention to the next round with a visit to Colorado on Saturday before returning to Las Vegas for what he hopes is a victory party on Saturday night.
Nevada Republicans will gather at various times at 125 locations around the state to hold the caucuses beginning at 11 a.m. EST, with all but one caucus site ending by 10 p.m. EST. One site in Las Vegas will begin at 10 p.m. EST to allow Jews observing the Sabbath to participate.
Romney won two of the first four contests -- New Hampshire and Florida -- but badly lost South Carolina to Gingrich and narrowly lost Iowa to Santorum.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)