LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Presidential candidate Mitt Romney opened a big poll lead on Friday in Nevada’s lightly contested Republican nominating race, where strong support from the state’s large Mormon community could be pivotal.
Romney, a multimillionaire who would be the first Mormon U.S. president, leads his closest rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, by 15 percentage points before Nevada’s caucus on Saturday, according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll that had a 4.5-point margin of error.
While McCain and the other top Republicans are campaigning hard in South Carolina in the state-by-state battle to become the party’s presidential nominee for the November election, the bright lights of the famed Las Vegas strip and other parts of Nevada have seen little Republican campaigning.
But Romney has made a strategic move to focus on Nevada, which traditionally has had little impact on the nominating race.
The only other Republican contender for the White House campaigning in the fast-growing Western state known for gambling, easy divorce and legal prostitution is long-shot candidate Ron Paul, a Texas congressman.
A Romney aide said the former Massachusetts governor plans to appear on the Jay Leno late night television program on Friday, flying to California for the taping after holding rallies in Nevada, where some 30,000 to 40,000 voters are expected to turn out for Saturday’s caucuses.
While Romney’s Mormon faith hurts him in the evangelical Christian heartlands of South Carolina and Iowa — he finished second to Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher in the latter state — the religion could give him an edge in Nevada, which Mormons settled in the early 1850s.
About 170,000 people in Nevada, or 6.8 percent of its population, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the formal name of the religion headquartered in neighboring Utah.
But political analysts say even if Romney prevails in Nevada’s caucuses, which are gatherings of voters rather than the more typical casting of secret ballots in voting booths, the win is unlikely to shake up the most wide open Republican presidential race in decades.
“Given how fractured the Republican constituency is at this point, the victor is going to be the person who can start building the coalition between the different factions,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of politics at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“If Romney’s strength in Nevada is just to get the Mormon vote, then it doesn’t advance him too far,” he said.
Editing by Lori Santos and Patricia Zengerle