LAS VEGAS -- In the shadow of Henderson's Green Valley, where the likes of the Waltons chisel vacation homes into the mountains, Mitt Romney held his final Nevada rally before caucuses here Saturday. In the parking lot of a strip mall behind a well-regarded brick-oven-fired pizza joint, the frontrunner closed his campaign with familiar themes of American weakness and decline that must and can be turned around by Romney.
The state's contest comes at an ideal time for the former Massachusetts governor. Knocked off balance by Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney picked up the must-win Florida primary. Nevada is a chance to deal Gingrich a quick second blow, and it's home turf for Romney. The state's outsized Mormon population came out big to Friday's rally, came out big in 2008 for him, and will come out big again Saturday. That leaves Gingrich battling for second place with Ron Paul, whose large and energized organization here threatens to put him past both Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
Gingrich isn't expected to drop out any time soon, but Romney backers believe the former speaker's supporters will soon come their way. "I absolutely expect that as this thing goes and it becomes clear the governor is going to be our nominee, Sheldon Adelson will be behind Romney in a big way," Michael Roberson, in line to become majority leader if the GOP takes the Nevada state senate, told HuffPost (adding that he reads the site all the time. "I get all my news from Twitter, and I keep winding up on The Huffington Post.")
But for many here, Romney is their man, largely because he's the most likely to beat Obama.
That's the case for Brooke Collinsworth, 5, who came with her mother Stephanie. (Her father was in the hospital, having just fractured his shoulder in a motorcycle accident.)
Standing in line to enter the rally, her mother handed her a flyer with a small photo of Obama. "I don't want it! There's a picture of Obama on there," she told her mom, trying to throw the flyer back at her.
Asked by HuffPost what her objection was to the president, she said, "He's mean."
"He's not mean," her mother corrected. "We don't like his policies."
"We don't like his policies," confirmed Brooke.
The Romney campaign has kept its cool in the midst of the most volatile Republican campaign since modern polling began. While surrogates are entrusted with keeping the pressure on Gingrich (another conference call was held badgering the former Speaker's record Friday morning) the candidate and his close aides are regaining their calm demeanor.
Standing behind the stage Friday night, Stuart Stevens, Romney's chief strategist, mingled about, spooning up vanilla frozen yogurt and carrying a plastic bag of vitamin samples.
"The caucuses in Nevada are unpredictable," he said, shrugging off the question of how his horse will perform tomorrow.
Closer to the stage stood Romney-backing lawmakers, along for the ride and to offer testimonials. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) gave a short introduction, while Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) looked on with a grin.
"Never take the voters for granted," the congressman told The Huffington Post. "If you start playing prevent defense and put a knee down, people notice and they don’t like it. The fact that he is running hard and refining the skills necessary for the main event in November, I think, is the right thing to do."
The skills in need of refining -- mainly, Romney's tendency to sound tone-deaf -- were still on display Friday. Digging into Obama for losing a $500 million taxpayer investment in the solar-panel company Solyndra, Romney quipped that his experience was with much smaller, more reasonable amounts of money -- five to ten million, that is.
"Five hundred million into Solyndra! Lemme just contrast that with how the real free economy works. When we started a little company called Staples, the investors all put in five or ten million dollars -- not five hundred million dollars. And instead of having offices in a big glass Taj Mahal like Solyndra, our offices were in the back of a shopping mall. And the chairs we had were these old Naugahyde" -- that's Romneyspeak for pleather -- "chairs. You had to be athletic to get out of them."
The crowd mostly nodded along. Quinton Singleton, a business attorney, said he's backing Romney and that "Gingrich is kind of a braggadocio," but that he was slightly underwhelmed by the final rally. "Come on. It's a rally in a parking lot. This is Las Vegas. Where are the showgirls?" he quipped.
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