NEW YORK (CBS/AP) CBS News estimates that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will win the Nevada Republican caucuses.
Romney, the only Republican to seriously focus on Nevada, entered the day with a comfortable lead in the state, according to a Mason-Dixon poll. The victory for the former Massachusetts governor is his second straight, following a win in the Michigan primary earlier in the week.
According to early CBS News exit poll data, the economy and illegal immigration were the issues on the minds of Nevada's Republican voters today.
About three in four Nevada GOP caucus-goers were conservative, and nearly half of GOP voters chose sharing values as their top candidate quality. GOP caucus-goers in both categories supported Romney.
Romney had made seven campaign trips to Nevada. He has largely ceded the South Carolina Republican race, also taking place today, to his rivals.
Voters in both states were choosing Saturday between Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls locked in battle in wide-open nomination races overshadowed by racial politics and the threat of economic recession.
South Carolina's Republicans headed for the polls and Nevadans of both parties participated in caucuses. South Carolina will hold its Democratic primary next Saturday.
Polls in South Carolina opened Saturday at 7 a.m. with many areas seeing rain coming down. In the northern reaches of the state up to three inches of snow was forecast, which threatened to slow the region to a crawl. A poll manager in Mount Pleasant said it would be difficult to predict what the inclement weather would do to voter turnout.
"My friends, these are challenging times," Republican John McCain told supporters Friday while aboard a World War II aircraft carrier in Charleston's harbor. The veteran Arizona senator was referring to the slumping U.S. economy, but he could have been talking about the intensity and the expense of the neck-and-neck fight for the Republican nomination.
Altogether, the contests would determine a hefty delegate haul - 25 Democratic, 58 Republican - and kick off a sprint through the South to Florida and onwards in the contest to determine who will take over from President George W. Bush, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. The candidates are looking to win enough delegates to secure their party's presidential nomination at national conventions later in the summer.
In the East, Republicans battled for votes in South Carolina, where the unemployment rate hit 6.6 percent in December after the largest one-month increase in nearly 20 years. Political viability was at stake for McCain, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and actor-politician Fred Thompson; Romney, meanwhile, lowered expectations for his prospects in South Carolina by moving on to the western state of Nevada.
McCain, winner in the New Hampshire primary, stressed his experience and economic credentials, while Huckabee, a preacher-turned-politician, hoped his message of economic populism and his backing from evangelical Christians - the constituency that afforded him a win in Iowa - would translate into a similar victory in South Carolina.
For McCain, a South Carolina win could prove to be particularly significant since it was that state that essentially torpedoed his 2000 presidential bid when he lost to George W. Bush. In recent elections, the winner of the Republican primary in South Carolina has gone on to win the party's presidential nomination.
Still, the Republican race remains wide open, with three different winners - McCain, Romney and Huckabee - in the three major contests held so far, and a win for any of them would provide a needed boost going forward.
A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll on Friday found McCain leading with 27 percent of the vote in South Carolina, followed by Huckabee with 20 percent, Romney, a Mormon millionaire businessman, was third and Thompson, fourth.
Former Tennessee Sen. Thompson, who gave up his role on the TV series "Law & Order" to enter the race, could drop his candidacy with a poor showing in his native South.
South Carolina voters named the economy as the campaign's top issue, and those who did preferred McCain, according to the poll.
McCain on Friday partly blamed his own party for America's woes.
"As a Republican, I stand before you embarrassed. Embarrassed that we let that spending get out of control," McCain told voters in South Carolina.
In Nevada, candidates of both parties braced for caucuses that for Democrats have been mired in legal disputes and exchanges about race. The uncertainty stemmed in large part from earlier-than-usual voting in the U.S.'s fastest-growing state that has also been hit by a high mortgage foreclosure rate.
Among the Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards ganged up on chief rival Barack Obama in the final days, mocking his evocation of former Republican President Ronald Reagan in an effort to offset Obama's endorsement by the powerful Culinary Workers Union. The Illinois senator was thought to benefit from special caucus rules that Clinton tried but failed to overturn in federal court.
Obama, who hopes to become the first black president, responded by suggesting Clinton would be a "president whose plans change with the politics of the moment" as part of one of his most direct critiques of the New York senator yet.
Clinton on Friday criticized Mr. Bush's proposed $145 billion economic stimulus package, which is aimed at staving off what many American voters worry is an economy headed into recession.
Clinton, the former first lady who is aiming to become the first woman president, charged that Mr. Bush's plan, far from providing a boost, left out tens of millions of the neediest Americans - poor senior citizens, Hispanics and blacks.
Clinton won in New Hampshire and scored a victory in the largely meaningless Democratic race in Michigan where Obama and Edwards had withdrawn their names from the ballot after the national party stripped the state of its delegates for violating party rules by moving up its primary date.
Going into Nevada's contest, a poll Friday showed Clinton leading in the state with 41 percent while Obama trailed with 32 percent. But the survey by Mason-Dixon showed about 10 percent of likely caucus-goers still undecided. Edwards had 14 percent. Other polls have shown the three in a statistical dead heat.
For both parties, Florida's voters go to the polls on Jan. 29. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has focused virtually all of his efforts on the state. South Carolina Democrats - the majority of whom are black - will choose a nominee on Jan. 26.
Still ahead for those who remain in the race is "Mega Tuesday," Feb. 5, when two dozen states cast what could be deciding votes for the presidential nominees.
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