LAS VEGAS // US Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney cruised to victory in the Nevada caucuses, notching a second straight triumph over a field of rivals suddenly struggling to keep pace.
The Saturday caucuses drew little attention in the nominating campaign, but Nevada figures to be a fierce battleground in November between the winner of the Republican nomination and Barack Obama, the Democrat president. The state's unemployment rate was measured at 12.6 per cent in December, the worst in the US.
Mr Romney unleashed a sharp attack on Obama, whose economic policies he said have "made these tough times last longer".
"President Obama seems to believe America's role as leader in the world is a thing of the past. I believe the 21st century will be and must be an American century," Mr Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said to cheers from his backers.
Newt Gingrich, the former House of Representatives speaker, and Ron Paul, the Texas Representative, vied for a distant second. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator, trailed the field. Returns from 14 of 17 counties showed Mr Romney with 42 per cent support, Mr Gingrich with 25 per cent, Mr Paul with 20 per cent and Mr Santorum with 13 per cent.
Mr Romney's victory capped a week that began with his double-digit win in the Florida primary. That contest was as intense as Nevada's caucuses were sedate - so quiet that they produced little television advertising, no candidate debates and only a modest investment of time by the contenders.
Preliminary results of a poll of Nevada Republicans entering their caucuses showed that nearly half said the most important consideration in their decision was a candidate's ability to defeat Mr Obama this fall, a finding in line with other states.
The entrance poll was conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press at 25 randomly selected caucus sites. It included 1,553 interviews and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
A total of 28 delegates were at stake in the state-by-state race to lock up the 1,144 needed to secure the Republican nomination.
From Nevada, the calendar turns to caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and a non-binding primary in Missouri on Tuesday.