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In Nev., Solid Showing Expected For Romney



Republican voters in Nevada have begun caucusing. It's the first state in the West to weigh in on the presidential nominating contest. And as we mentioned earlier, Mitt Romney is the overwhelming favorite to win. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have also been campaigning in the state. Rick Santorum is looking ahead to contests in the Midwest next week.

NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us from the center of the action in Las Vegas. Ari, you've been spending a lot of time with Mitt Romney this week. What's his message been to voters in Nevada?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, the message shows just how confident he is of his victory here. You remember in South Carolina and Florida, he attacked Newt Gingrich incessantly. Well, here in Nevada, he has not mentioned Gingrich's name once. Instead, he's back to focusing exclusively on President Obama.

That's the sort of approach you can only take if you're the clear front-runner who's not worried about attacks from within your party. And Romney is sticking with the economic message that this president has made the economy worse, even though new unemployment numbers yesterday show better-than-expected job growth for the last few months.

RAZ: Now that the race, the nomination race, seems to be a two-man contest at this point, what's Newt Gingrich's approach to Nevada?

SHAPIRO: It's pretty much the opposite of Romney. He is attacking his rival constantly hoping to knock him off the pedestal. Not much evidence that the approach is working. But one Romney comment that Gingrich keeps zeroing in on is the statement Romney made to CNN earlier this week that he's not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net. Now, Romney has said he misspoke. He only meant to say that his focus is on the middle class.

But Gingrich keeps returning to this to make two points. The first is that he says Romney is not prepared to go head-to-head with President Obama because he's too gas prone. And the second point that Gingrich says Romney's argument in favor of a safety net for the poor shows that Romney is not a true conservative.

Gingrich argues that it's not a safety net. It's what he calls a spider web trapping people in poverty. And he argues instead for what he calls a trampoline to get the poor out of poverty and into the middle class.

RAZ: And, Ari, let me ask you about Nevada. How has it been different from the other states that have voted so far? I mean, what are the themes that the candidates are focusing on, for example?

SHAPIRO: Well, just geographically, this is a really unusual state. Eighty-five percent of the population lives in and around either Las Vegas or Reno. That's a higher percentage than any other state in the country in terms of urban density. And in between those two cities, there's just hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert.

And then the economy here is among the weakest in the country. Nevada leads the country in unemployment, in home foreclosures, in personal bankruptcy. Politically, it's a place where Mitt Romney took about half of the vote in 2008, when John McCain was beating him elsewhere. Some of that has to do with the state's strong Mormon population. They're very conservative and very politically active.

And then, finally, Nevada's campaign schedule is different from any other state to vote so far because this is the only state where the candidates have not held a debate in the days leading up to voting. And those debates were really key in the kind of up and down that we saw with Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney before. The absence of debates may have kind of kept the race in stasis.

RAZ: So how will this all play out tonight?

SHAPIRO: Well, it's going to be a late night. We won't expect results until much later, probably because we're in Pacific Time. But here's one pretty good indication of what to expect. In other states, there have been, quote, unquote, "victory parties" for at least a couple, if not all the candidates. Tonight, Romney is the only one with a party scheduled. Newt Gingrich is having a news conference. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum won't even be in the state when we get results.

RAZ: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro in Las Vegas. Ari, thanks.

SHAPIRO: No problem, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.