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October 1, 2014

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Where do the Republican presidential candidates go from here?

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Mona Shield Payne

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney receives a pat on the back from his son during the Nevada Republican caucus Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012, at the Red Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

The lesson of this volatile Republican presidential campaign, until Saturday, had been this: Don’t drop out because who knows? You just might win the next state.

Nevada may have turned that wisdom on its head by giving Mitt Romney a decisive victory, solidifying his momentum and then some.

“Mitt Romney will be able to go out now off two significant victories and raise the kind of money, not to put into the remaining February states but to start financing the Super Tuesday states,” said Nevada Republican strategist Robert Uithoven, who did not caucus Saturday. “Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, they’re running their campaigns now one state at a time. It’s all fine and good to go out and hold a news conference and tell your supporters you’re going to take your campaign all the way to the election. It’s another thing to pay for that.”

Now that Nevada’s first-in-the-West caucuses are over, the national focus has turned back east to Tuesday’s contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

Gingrich and Santorum, competing to wear the party’s conservative sash, each have one win in their column heading into those contests. But both fell behind in Florida, and even further behind in Nevada.

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Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during rally outside his Nevada headquarters in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012.

Santorum had so anticipated his lackluster showing — he drew 10 percent of the vote — that he spent only 12 hours in Nevada before shifting to Colorado, which caucuses on Tuesday, and Missouri, which has a nonbinding primary this week. It seems to have been a smart calculation for him: He’s now poised to overtake Gingrich for second place in Colorado and might beat Romney in Minnesota and Missouri (though the latter, as it is nonbinding, won’t count for much except momentum).

Gingrich took second place in Nevada after returning here and staying through Saturday — a potential campaign day in another state — to watch the results at the Venetian, the casino of his most committed backer, Sheldon Adelson. But his ultimate finish — it took the whole weekend to tally the caucus votes — came too late to generate momentum heading into the Tuesday trio states, where he is behind Romney and Santorum in every poll.

Gingrich left Nevada looking like he’d lost to Romney instead of won second place — an impression he helped to solidify by dismissing Romney’s win as the quirk of running in a “heavily Mormon state.”

“I am a candidate for president of the United States,” Gingrich said Saturday night. “We will go to Tampa [the site of the Republican 2012 convention this August].”

But Romney didn’t just beat Gingrich among Mormons: According to entrance polls, he placed first among every category of religious voter, except voters who claimed they had no religion.

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Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks during a news conference after the Nevada caucus at the Venetian Saturday, February 4, 2012

And he’s still placing first among Republicans in fundraising, in Nevada and nationwide.

At the end of 2011, Romney reported having almost $20 million on hand — money he had to burn through to fight off Gingrich in Florida, but the funds are being replenished.

At the same juncture, Gingrich had only about $2 million and over half as much in debt. According to reports, even with the boost he got after South Carolina, Gingrich’s campaign still has $600,000 in unpaid debts — and his rate of fundraising has been decreasing since he won in the South two weeks ago.

Money isn’t everything: Santorum’s campaign has never had the financial resources of either Romney or Gingrich’s camps, though he does have a powerful Wyoming cowboy tycoon backing him in much the same fashion as Adelson backs Gingrich, just not to the same extent.

But Santorum and Gingrich have had to hustle for cash as much as they’ve had to hustle for committed voters.

While in Nevada, Gingrich spent as much time looking for dollars as votes — while Romney swept in mostly just to solidify both.

“We got a whole lot of positive energy out of Florida,” Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, Romney’s state campaign co-chair along with Rep. Joe Heck, said Saturday night. “But I think Nevada sends Gov. Romney onto the next caucuses with tremendous momentum. ... The percentage of the win is just deep and broad and stunning. And I think anyone in this race has to look at that. ... It’s sobering as they move forward.”

But that doesn’t mean that after looking at it, they have to react to it.

“We live in a time when people can stay in these races for minimal amounts of money as long as they want to, based on their conscience,” said Bob List, Nevada’s former governor and a national committeeman for the state GOP. He did caucus Saturday but wouldn’t reveal his pick.

“Some of them might stay in because they want to play a role in attempting to shape party policy and the future direction of the campaigns, and some may be vying for enough support to justify some subsequent role in a Republican administration of one of the other candidates,” he said. “I think I’d be surprised if Ron Paul didn’t get nominated in Tampa, just for the sake of making a statement and folks sending a message. So I guess you have to be a mind reader to discern why some people stay in as long as they do.”

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Rep. Ron Paul speaks at a rally for Philippine-American veterans at the Leatherneck Club in Las Vegas Friday, Feb. 3, 2012.

Paul, who came in third in Nevada, has perhaps the most loyal minority following in the entire GOP — as well as significant popularity among independents and libertarian-minded Democrats, some of whom even changed their registration to be able to caucus for Paul on Saturday.

Paul, however, has already started to break down his White House aspirations into practical math: He’s going after delegates, and if he can’t build up enough, he’s already said he’d reconsider staying in the race.

Such changes in tone will likely precede any actual changes to the ballots, as we’re nowhere near the point of no return on the delegate count, even if momentum seems to have decisively swung in Romney’s favor.

To date, only 143 of the 2,286 delegates up for grabs have been awarded. Romney has 85 — more than the others combined: Gingrich has 29, Santorum has 16, Paul has 8, and now-defunct presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has 2 (a holdover from his third-place finish in New Hampshire).

Tuesday’s contests will up the total distributed delegates to 219 — less than 10 percent of the total that will attend the Tampa convention this summer.

But if things continue on this trajectory — especially if Romney performs as well as expected on Super Tuesday, a 10-state, 437-delegate strong day — it may not take until Tampa to determine the de facto nominee.

“Certainly, you stay in until we get to the stage where someone becomes the obvious nominee because he’s gotten over the magic number in terms of delegates,” Uithoven said. “And maybe you stay in until it’s embarrassing to not get out.”

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