Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Nevada caucuses Saturday, powering past Sen. Barack Obama in a hard-fought race marred by late charges of dirty politics. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney coasted to an easy win in the Republican contest.
The victory marked a second-straight campaign triumph for the former first lady, who scored a New Hampshire primary upset last week and is locked in a historic, increasingly tense struggle with Obama.
Clinton was gaining roughly half the vote in nearly complete returns, with Obama at about 45 percent and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards placing a distant third.
Romney said Republicans had cast their votes for change — and that he was the man to provide it.
“People are very concerned about what’s happening globally but they’re also concerned about what’s happening here at home,” he said after arriving in Florida, site of a Jan. 29 primary. The former businessman sketched the outlines of an economic stimulus package far larger than anything President Bush or congressional leaders are discussing, including tax cuts for individuals and businesses.
The Republican caucuses drew relatively little candidate interest. Not so the party’s South Carolina primary, the second half of a campaign doubleheader, and a duel between Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Romney was gaining more than half the vote in Nevada, leaving McCain and Texas Rep. Ron Paul in a close race for a distant second place.
Obama, the most viable black presidential candidate in history, had pinned his Nevada hopes on an outpouring of support from the Culinary Workers Union, which endorsed him last week. But it appeared that turnout was lighter than expected at nine caucuses established along the Las Vegas Strip for the union membership, and some attending held signs reading, “I support my union. I support Hillary.”
The Nevada Democratic contest was intense, despite the absence of negative television commercials.
The Clinton campaign said their supporters in the union had been the targets of threats designed to keep them from attending caucuses. Obama’s camp said their backers were receiving telephone calls that made repeated reference to “Barack Hussein Obama.”
And Obama himself told reporters that former President Clinton “seems to be making a habit of mischaracterizing what I say.”
Interviews with Democratic caucus-goers indicated that Clinton fashioned her victory by winning about half the votes cast by whites, and two-thirds support from Hispanics, many members of the union that endorsed Obama. He won about 80 percent of the black vote.
Obama looked to next Saturday’s primary in South Carolina to counter in the Democratic race between himself and Clinton, who is seeking to become the first woman to win the White House. The state is home to thousands of black voters, who are expected to comprise as much as half the Democratic electorate.
Romney’s western victory marked a second straight success for the former governor, coming quickly after a first-place finish in the Michigan primary revived a faltering campaign.
He learned of his victory when his wife Ann announced it on the public address system of his chartered jet. “Keep ’em coming. Keep ’em coming,” he said.
Romney had campaigned for months to win early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his candidacy was in trouble when he lost both. He retooled his appeal to the voters in the days leading to the Michigan primary, though, focusing on the economy and trumpeting his experience as a business leader.
En route to Florida, he presented reporters with his ambitious economic stimulus plan, $233 billion in all. It includes tax rebates as well as tax cuts for individuals, as well as tax cuts for businesses.
Nevada Republicans said the economy and illegal immigration were their top concerns, according to a survey of voters entering the caucuses. Romney led among voters who cited both issues.
Mormons gave Romney about half his votes. He is hoping to become the first member of his faith to win the White House. Alone among the Republican contenders, Paul aired television ads in Nevada.
Romney was winning more than 50 percent of the vote, with Paul and McCain far behind vying for second. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Huckabee trailed.
Romney also won at least 16 of the 31 Republican National Convention delegates at stake. McCain and Paul won at least three apiece, while Thompson and Huckabee won at least two each.
Nevada offered more delegates — 31 versus 24 — but far less appeal to the Republican candidates than South Carolina, a primary that has gone to the party’s eventual nominee every four years since 1980.
That made it a magnet for Thompson, who staked his candidacy on a strong showing, as well as for Romney, McCain and Huckabee.
McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, appealed to a large population of military veterans in South Carolina, and stressed his determination to rein in federal spending as he worked to avenge a bitter defeat in the 2000 primary.
Huckabee reached out to evangelical Christian voters, hoping to rebound from a string of disappointing showings since his victory in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
Romney campaigned on a pledge to help restore the state’s economy, much as he did in winning Michigan.
In South Carolina, the economy and immigration were cited as top issues, with more than half the voters saying illegal immigrants should be deported. Conservatives and white evangelical voters turned out in heavy numbers, according to the polling place interviews.
Survey data in both states were from polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
South Carolina primary voters coped with equipment difficulty and bad weather. Election officials in the area around Myrtle Beach brought out paper ballots after some electronic voting machines failed to work properly. Snow fell in the northern part of the state, which has little snow removal equipment.
Alone among the major Republican contenders, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani skipped the day’s events. He camped out in Florida, the first of the big states to vote, with a winner-take-all primary.
Associated Press writers Seanna Adcox and Libby Quaid, both in Columbia, S.C., Bruce Smith in Mount Pleasant, S.C., and Glen Johnson in Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this report.