SPARKS, Nev. — As he campaigned around the state the day before Nevadans cast their votes in the Republican presidential nominating contest today, Mitt Romney exuded a front-runner's confidence. Keeping his eye on November, he aimed his rhetorical fire at the man he wants to replace in the White House.
But Newt Gingrich, who is expected to finish second, kept his sights on today's caucuses, slashing away at the former Massachusetts governor and hoping to make a decent showing after a stinging loss in Florida on Tuesday. His South Carolina surprise victory seems like a long time ago.
While Romney was telling a handful of entrepreneurs and government officials that his 25 years as a businessman qualify him to replace President Barack Obama, the former House speaker was telling supporters that Romney does not understand the free market, is not a genuine conservative and is against "American ideals."
"It isn't good enough for the Republican Party to nominate Obama light," Gingrich told about 100 people at a Las Vegas country bar, some of whom smoked and drank beer during the morning rally. "I think we want a candidate who works, pays taxes and believes in the Declaration of Independence, not someone who is clearly against the American ideals."
Those are the charges that Romney has leveled against Obama. In a roundtable discussion with business owners, Romney dismissed the Labor Department's report that the unemployment rate had dropped slightly, to 8.3 percent. The news may be welcome, Romney said, but it is long overdue.
"This president has not helped the process," Romney said. "He's hurt it."
Later in the day, Gingrich said in a statement, "Anemic growth is not growth. … Here in Nevada there is 13 percent unemployment and a tremendous opportunity in the energy sector — yet the Obama administration has most of the state's natural resources bound up in red tape and regulation."
Romney, a multimillionaire who made his fortune in the private equity business, has been criticized for seeming insensitive, particularly to people in dire economic straits.
Last fall, he told Nevadans in the grip of a foreclosure crisis that the market should be allowed to bottom out without government intervention.
But he has also shown gestures of compassion that have paid off politically. Romney made a lasting impression on two Nevada officials last year when he reached out to them after local tragedies.
At the end of a roundtable discussion with some business owners Friday morning at a Western Nevada Supply, a building supply company, Reno Mayor Bob Cashell thanked Romney for calling him after an air race crash killed a pilot and 10 spectators in September.
"I can never tell you how much it meant to me when I picked up my cellphone and answered a call from you," Cashell said. "You called me to tell me your hearts and prayers were with me, and that you would do whatever you could. I can never tell you how much that meant."
Romney nodded. "This part of the state has been hard hit, I know that," he said "Fires, and shootings, and of course the air race tragedy. This has been an awfully tough time."
"Nobody else running for this office or anything called me up, except you," Cashell said.