By KASIE HUNT, ASSOCIATED PRESS
LAS VEGAS -- A confident Mitt Romney is looking past his GOP opponents and Nevada's caucuses the day the state votes. Chief rival Newt Gingrich is bracing for defeat in a state the former Massachusetts governor won in 2008.
Romney was scheduled to fly to Colorado Saturday morning for a campaign rally before returning to Las Vegas for a party with supporters at a casino a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. In a sign that he expects to lose, Gingrich planned a simple statement instead of an event.
Romney cruised to victory in Florida last Tuesday, handily won this state four years ago and is heavily favored to win Saturday's contest. Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also are on the ballot. But Romney, a Mormon, has an existing network of support from his 2008 race and likely will again benefit from the support of members of his church, many of whom live in Nevada.
Gingrich is still struggling after losing to Romney in Florida. He's facing a month of contests that favor Romney and only one scheduled debate, opportunities that have helped him in the past.
Gingrich acknowledged Romney's likely victory and cast the vote in Nevada as a fight for second place.
"I think our hope is that we may be able to come in second, although Ron Paul is very organized," the former House speaker told Fox News in an interview Friday. "We're going all out to see if we can't be a good solid second here, and then we're on to Colorado and Minnesota."
Romney ignored his chief rival, instead projecting himself as the likely Republican nominee.
"I'm convinced that I can beat Barack Obama and I don't think anyone else can," he told volunteers making phone calls for him Friday.
He accused the president of failing to do enough to create jobs as he campaigned in a state with sky-high unemployment and foreclosure rates. Nevada's unemployment rate was 12.6 in December – well above the national average – after a record economic bust.
As he swept through Reno, Elko and Las Vegas, Romney sought to convince weary voters that he alone had the prescriptions for what ails the country – even as the government reported that a quarter-million Americans streamed back into the workforce in January and unemployment tumbled to 8.3 percent. Romney acknowledged the brightening economic picture but argued that it had little to do with Obama or his policies.
"The policies of this administration have not been helpful. They, in fact, have been harmful. They have slowed down the recovery, made it more difficult," Romney said at a home and yard supply company in Reno, where he talked about the economy with local business leaders. "The president deserves the blame that he'll receive in this campaign."
Gingrich, in an interview on CNN, said the Democrat's policies have driven up the national debt and raised the price of gasoline.
"The economy even at 8.3 percent is dramatically weaker than it was under Ronald Reagan at this exact same point in his first term," he said.
But as Gingrich looks to recover from a shellacking in Florida, he chose to spend much of his time hammering home his latest argument against a Romney presidency – that there is virtually no difference between Romney and Obama.
For the second day in a row, Gingrich castigated Romney for saying that he's not focused on the poor because they already have a safety net. Romney has said he misspoke, but Gingrich sought to use the moment to gain the upper hand, saying it's another instance where Romney and Obama are similar.
"Obama is big food stamp. He's little food stamp. But they both think foods stamps are OK," Gingrich said. "I don't think food stamps are the future for America."
Associated Press writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.
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