Nevada falls third in the tentative primary schedule, and it holds outsized importance for the former Massachusetts governor. If he runs for president, as appears likely, he would not be expected to win the early states of Iowa or South Carolina.
Under almost any scenario, that means he must win in New Hampshire. And Nevada, falling just after the Granite State, would present the second key test of his strength.
By the numbers, Romney — who is scheduled to visit Las Vegas on Monday — should perform strongly in the Silver State. An estimated 7.5 percent of Nevada residents share Romney’s Mormon faith, and exit polls showed Mormons accounted for one in four caucus voters in 2008.
But while he would start the 2012 Nevada contest with a formidable organization and as the overwhelming favorite, the landscape in this Western state is more hostile.
Seeking to become more than a primary backwater bypassed by most candidates, Nevada changed its caucus rules for next year’s campaign to make the outcome binding on its delegates to the Republican National Convention.
The intent was to increase the state’s prominence in the primaries, and it’s working. Nevada is attracting stronger interest from such would-be candidates as Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, who have made early visits and are planning more.
The rightward tug of insurgents in the Republican Party, meanwhile, has added a measure of anti-establishment volatility to the Nevada electorate that was largely absent four years ago and could seriously hurt Romney, whose health care plan in Massachusetts, used as the model for the national overhaul last year, is widely despised by conservatives.
‘‘Mitt Romney has a strong Mormon base of support in Nevada that will continue,’’ said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist who is planning to host candidate forums at a bar with a mechanical bull, just south of the Vegas strip. ‘‘The biggest hurdle for Mitt Romney to overcome is RomneyCare.’’
Romney, who is expected to announce his candidacy in the spring, declined requests for an interview. Like most other potential candidates, Romney has been quietly testing the waters for a run. He appeared last week in Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event that attracts many presidential aspirants. He will travel to Las Vegas on Monday and Tuesday to speak at a business convention and meet with campaign donors.
Romney is ahead in the polls in Nevada and his supporters maintain he can attract Tea Party support by talking about fiscal conservatism and other issues important to the party’s right wing.
‘‘No one candidate is going to get every Tea Party vote in Nevada,’’ said Ryan Erwin, a top political consultant in the state who is prepared to lead Romney’s state operation. ‘‘But regardless of whether we are talking about activists in the Tea Party movement or those who simply share the philosophy, voters focused on balanced budgets and fiscal restraint in Nevada are largely Romney people.’’
Romney has been defending the 2006 Massachusetts health plan, the signature accomplishment of his gubernatorial administration, as an example of a state exercising its powers to solve problems within its borders. He criticizes the Obama plan, by contrast, as a federal overreach that usurps states’ rights.
That argument has yet to appease Tea Party activists.
Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate who stunned the GOP by winning Nevada’s Senate primary last year before losing to Majority Leader Harry Reid, would not criticize Romney directly in an interview. But she said the Massachusetts health plan will be a factor in the Nevada election.
‘‘It failed, and we know that this Obamacare is unconstitutional,’’ she said. ‘‘I think that those kinds of things are going to come into play during the presidential election.’’
Surveys of Republican Nevada voters have shown Romney with a moderate lead. A poll conducted last month by Public Policy Polling put Romney at 31 percent, compared to Sarah Palin (19 percent), Gingrich (18 percent), and Mike Huckabee (14 percent).
‘‘The 800-pound gorilla in Republican politics is Mitt Romney,’’ said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. ‘‘You’re going to see him run the traditional top down organization and count on his religious affiliation. But he’s got a lot of issues to overcome.’’
While the mood is uncertain a year before the Nevada caucus (tentatively scheduled for Feb. 18, 2012), a billboard on I-215 leaving Las Vegas warns of the some of the dangers for establishment candidates like Romney: ‘‘Ron Paul 2012.’’ The Texas Republican congressman finished second behind Romney four years ago, and conservative activists want him back in the race.
Paul’s last high-profile trip to the state was in 2009. But several Tea Party favorites — Representative Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, and former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain — have made multiple visits to the state in recent months. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, a Mormon who is resigning as US ambassador to China and weighing a run for president, could cut into Romney’s church support.
High unemployment, which at 14 percent was the worst in the country in December, and foreclosures are big issues in Nevada and helped fuel voter anger in 2010.
With few formally declared candidates and a year to go, voters have yet to seriously tune in to presidential politics. In a dozen interviews with Nevada Republicans, support for Romney was mixed.
‘‘The key issue here is jobs, jobs, jobs,’’ said Robert Sulliman, a security services manager. ‘‘Who better to make things happen than Mitt Romney?’’
But those who identified themselves as aligned with the Tea Party tended to oppose him.
‘‘I’m not a fan,’’ said Bettye Gilmour, a 67-year-old retired social worker. ‘‘He’s very presidential looking, but he’s too much of a politician.’’
Romney’s organization has not yet geared up in Nevada — but it is ready to go on short notice, said his supporters. His team still has its database of voter identification files — called ‘‘Romney Connect’’ — that will give him a big head start. Romney’s son Josh has been staying in touch with former campaign workers.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.