Nevada Is Romneyland

Why Mitt Romney is the prohibitive favorite in the Silver State -- hint: it's not just the Mormons -- and why a win there still might not help him

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LAS VEGAS -- In 2008, Mitt Romney won the Nevada caucuses in a landslide. What did it get him? Nothing.

No delegates. No bounce. Nothing to halt his slippage to the eventual nominee, John McCain, who spent that January day in South Carolina -- winning where it counted.

Now, as 2012 approaches, the significance of Nevada's place in the primary lineup is once again in doubt. And once again, Romney's problem isn't winning over the state's voters -- as far as they're concerned, Nevada is still Romneyland. The problem is making it count.

On Monday, an adoring throng -- yes, adoring -- surrounded Romney as he strolled into the parking lot of a nondescript office park in southwest Las Vegas to open his local campaign headquarters.

Romney's hair was uncharacteristically lank and ungelled, flapping youthfully across his forehead as he gladhanded and baby-kissed. Beneath a clear blue sky and blazing sun in the 80-degree heat of a Mojave Desert autumn, Romney declared, "It's wonderful to be here again in Nevada, with my friends in Las Vegas."

He added, "Now, you're here not because things are great right now in Nevada -- but because they're going to be great after I become president!"

Romney spoke for just four minutes, handing the stage over to former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, his rival-turned-surrogate. "We need Mitt!" the crowd chanted.

They followed him inside, jam-packing the campaign office, defeating both the room's posted capacity and the building's air-conditioning.

For Romney, a weak front-runner whose primary obstacle has long been his perpetual inability to enthuse Republican voters, it must feel awfully good to come to Nevada.

Elsewhere, his Mormon faith is reason for suspicion; here, it's an asset.

It's commonly assumed that Romney won Nevada because of all the Mormons. The Mormons -- and the Romney people -- hate that assumption, which they consider an ignorant myth.

They have a point: According to the exit polls, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made up a quarter of 2008 Nevada caucus-goers and half of Romney's total votes. Had all the Mormons stayed home, Romney still would have gotten the most votes.

But Romney's LDS support is significant, and the prevalence of Mormons in Nevada also means non-Mormons have a higher comfort level here with the faith and its adherents. Many at Monday's rally said they were powerfully offended when a Texas pastor supporting Rick Perry called Mormonism a non-Christian cult.

The Mormon vote is also a convenient excuse for other candidates to skip a state that is unfamiliar and in many ways unappealing -- a five-hour flight from the East Coast, with a reputation for sin that might make Bible Belt voters wary.

The more significant factor in Romney's 2008 win was that he worked for it, and nobody tried to stop him.

Romney visited the state far more than any other candidate, as he has this time around. And no other 2008 campaign was systematically doing the spadework Romney's people were doing: persuading voters, identifying supporters, committing them to the weird, new, time-consuming caucus process and getting them to their caucus locations on a chilly Saturday morning.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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