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Conservatives, late deciders boost Romney in Nevada GOP caucuses

  • Story Highlights
  • Thousands fill caucus rooms, sometimes forcing delay in start of GOP voting
  • Polls show 94 percent of voters ID'd as Mormon voted for projected winner
  • Romney also scored well with voters worried about economy, illegal immigration
  • Congressman Ron Paul, Sen. John McCain neck and neck with 13 percent of vote

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LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- A sometimes overwhelming number of Republican voters swept Mitt Romney to victory Saturday in the Nevada caucuses, where the former Massachusetts governor scored well with conservatives, late deciders and veterans, according to early entrance polls.

CNN projected Romney would be the winner based on precincts reporting results, entrance polls and other statistical models -- including the number of votes outstanding in areas where he was expected to do well. Several GOP contenders were in a tight battle for second place.

Romney, who won the Michigan GOP primary Tuesday, also benefited from his Mormon religion. Romney captured 94 percent of the voters who identified themselves as Mormons, which made up 25 percent all Republicans participating in the GOP caucuses. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints estimates there are 170,000 Mormons in Nevada. Video Watch Romney his Nevada supporters for the win »

"Today, the people of Nevada voted for change in Washington," Romney said in a statement released by his campaign. "Whether it is reforming health care, making America energy independent or securing the border, the American people have been promised much and are now ready for change.

"The need for change is even more apparent today as our economy faces challenges both here at home and abroad," Romney said. "For decades, we have talked about the long-term economic challenges confronting our country but the tax burden is too high, business is stifled by regulations and more money goes to defending against junk lawsuits than promoting research and innovation."

Romney scored well with voters who ranked the economy and illegal immigration -- the top two issues on the minds of Nevada GOP voters -- as the issues that concern them most, according to early entrance polls. Video Watch a discussion of Romney's business background »

Entrance poll results also showed that the economy and illegal immigration ranked first and second on the minds of GOP voters, with 38 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

Romney also won over veterans, late deciders, rural voters and voters in Nevada's largest metropolitan area, Las Vegas and Clark County. But the entrance polls show a closer race in Washoe County, home of Reno, Nevada's second-largest city.

Voters who tapped Romney did so because he shares their values and has the experience to lead, according to the entrance polls.

Other GOP contenders finished far behind Romney, who took 51 percent of the vote with 100 percent of precincts reporting. Texas Rep. Ron Paul edged out Sen. John McCain of Arizona by 14 to 13. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson followed with 8 percent, with Huckabee beating the former "Law and Order" actor by fewer than 100 votes. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who did not campaign in the state, took with 4 percent.

California Rep. Duncan Hunter was bringing up the rear with 2 percent -- and, after five straight single-digit finishes, announced he was dropping out of the race.

Thousands of Republicans filled caucus rooms Saturday morning for the vote, sometimes forcing a delay in the start of the voting "to make sure everybody got where they needed to go," said Nevada Republican Party spokesman Steve Wark.

"Until we have all the numbers in, it's going be difficult to determine how many people actually voted, but from anecdotal reports, it was much more than what we expected. And in some areas, it was marginally overwhelming," Wark said. "It worked out really well, and we've been able to accommodate the overflow."

Wark said the amount of money and media attention the Democrats spent in the state attributed to the "overall heightened awareness" of the Republicans. And, he said, having no anointed "front-runner" or sitting president or vice president seeking the nomination meant there was "no deterrent to people getting out there and supporting the candidate of their choice."

"People became aware, especially after New Hampshire, that if they participated in the process that they actually could make a difference and their voices could be heard," he said.

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Romney's win earlier this week in Michigan was his first major victory, although he also took the Wyoming caucuses earlier this year. McCain took the New Hampshire primary, and Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses. Video Watch Romney look forward to Florida contest »

For Republicans, the next contest is the big Florida primary January 29. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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