LAS VEGAS (CNN) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney thanked supporters Saturday night for handing him their “vote of confidence” and vowed to “take it to the White House.”
CNN projects that the former Massachusetts governor will win Saturday’s Republican caucuses in Nevada, making him the first GOP candidate in this campaign cycle to score back-to-back victories.
In his speech in Las Vegas, Romney did not mention any of his fellow GOP contenders. Instead, he set his sights directly on President Barack Obama.
The president, he said, began his presidency by “apologizing for America.”
“He should now be apologizing to America,” Romney said to loud cheers.
He assailed the president for proposed military cuts, saying he will “insist on a military so powerful that no in the world would ever think of challenging it.”
“I believe the 21st century must be and will be an American century,” Romney said.
With 13% of precincts counted, Romney had garnered about 47% of the vote.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul trailed with 22% and 19% respectively, according to CNN’s tally. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had 12% of the vote.
The front-runner’s son, Joshua, told CNN that Romney understands the economy better than Obama and is the right candidate.
“My dad is a turnaround guy,” he said.
Romney appeared to win in the Iowa caucuses but the contest was later awarded to Santorum when the vote was certified. Romney scored a big win in New Hampshire but was then stunned in South Carolina by Gingrich. Romney scored a 14-point victory over Gingrich and the rest of the field in Tuesday’s Florida primary and entered Saturday’s contest with a sizable lead in polls.
The Nevada caucuses were open only to the state’s more than 470,000 registered Republicans. Nevada’s 28 delegates will be awarded proportionately based on the statewide vote.
Polls leading up to the vote showed Gingrich trailing far behind Romney. At one point in the wake of a poor showing in the Florida primary, Gingrich advisers said he would basically concede the state and look down the road to more friendly states. But ultimately he chose to campaign in Nevada and didn’t appear to make up much ground on Romney.
Jackie Cushman, one of Gingrich’s daughters, told CNN the family didn’t expect him to prevail in Nevada, but was excited about the direction of the campaign.
“He’s not a traditional candidate,” she said of her father. “He has his own ideas and that’s what people love about him. He’s a real person. He’s authentic.”
As the votes were being counted, a leading Romney backer in Nevada was calling for Gingrich to drop out of the race instead of continuing to divide the party.
Nevada Rep. Joe Heck, who has been closely allied with Romney since his 2008 presidential bid, said the results of the caucuses should be a wake up call for Gingrich.
“I hope he takes the message that it’s time to withdraw gracefully and not continue to divide the party,” Heck told reporters in Las Vegas, shortly before the first round of caucus results were announced.
Heck was not as insistent, however, when asked if Paul should also bow out for the good of the party.
Paul should quit when it becomes apparent that there is “enough critical mass in terms of delegates,” he said, probably sometime after Super Tuesday.
Gingrich has vowed to stay in the race all the way to the Republican National Convention in August. He is hoping to survive through low-level contests in February and rebound on Super Tuesday, where he could find friendlier voters in March 6 Super Tuesday contests in Georgia, which he represented in Congress, neighboring Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Both Romney and Gingrich spent caucus night in Nevada. As they did on primary night in Florida, both Paul and Santorum looked ahead to Tuesday caucus states — Paul in Minnesota and Santorum in Colorado.
Paul told CNN’s Wolf Bilitzer Saturday night that he was watching to “see if we do have a good second place coming up” in Nevada.
Asked about how long his campaign could run, Paul said even if he wanted to drop out of the race ahead of the convention, he couldn’t because there would be a “strong rebellion with my friends.”
“But we’re doing so well there’s no reason to think about that,” Paul added.
Campaigning in Colorado, Santorum told CNN that he expects to win one of the three events next week in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.
“I expect to win the nomination,” Santorum said. “I feel very good about how it is going. This race is a long way from being over.
(By Paul Steinhauser and John Helton, CNN.)