By Cynthia Johnston
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - The next state in the Republican nominating contest, Nevada, is friendly turf for front-runner Mitt Romney, who easily won here four years ago and is perhaps even stronger in the state this time round.
"I think it would be the upset of the upsets," David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said of prospects of a win by anyone other than Romney on Saturday.
"Romney has the advantage. He's been here. He's organized. He's got the whole LDS organization," he added, referring to his membership in the Mormon church, whose Republican-leaning followers in Nevada make up about a tenth of the state's population.
Just 11 days ago, Romney was limping out of South Carolina, where he came in second to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who only this week opened an all-volunteer field office in Nevada.
But Florida now appears to be Romney's for the taking after prominent conservatives and party leaders threw their weight behind him, worried a Gingrich nomination would doom Republicans in November's general election against President Barack Obama.
"While Nevada Republicans may not be wild about Romney, the social conservatives are not as important in Nevada as they are say in South Carolina and Iowa and Florida. Romney's business background really helps him here. And being a Mormon doesn't hurt him here," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Reno.
He added that the race in libertarian-minded Nevada, a state with a strong anti-tax lobby that is at the epicenter of the nation's housing crisis, was more likely to focus on fiscal conservatism than hot-button social issues.
"We're pretty individualistic. Our economy is built on gambling, drinking. Nevada Republicans are probably pro-life, but it's not what motivates the political debate here. We're about taxes and little government," Herzik said.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who won the 2008 Nevada caucus with over 50 percent of the vote but lost the nomination, has the backing of many prominent Nevada Republicans as well as an endorsement from the state's biggest newspaper.
He has also appeared to be trying to woo first-term Republican Governor Brian Sandoval, who early on endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry who has since dropped out, with a mention from Florida as a potential Latino cabinet pick.
A poll of registered Republican voters commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in December showed Romney leading the state with 33 percent and Gingrich with 29 percent.
Ron Paul, who has long had an enthusiastic base of supporters in Nevada and who in 2008 edged out eventual Republican nominee John McCain in the state for second place, had 13 percent. Rick Santorum was in the single digits.
Romney, who launched his economic plan months ago in Las Vegas, has said voters have responded to his more aggressive criticism over the past week of Gingrich's work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, his ethics probe and his resignation as U.S. House of Representatives speaker.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal endorsed Romney on Sunday, saying that his greatest strength was "his command of economic issues and his understanding of what the private sector needs to create jobs."
"He wants the country to develop all its energy resources, not punish the oil, coal and gas sectors. He wants states and citizens to have more freedom to innovate. And perhaps most importantly, Mr. Romney is a Washington outsider, not a capital insider," the paper said.
Analysts said it would be hard for candidates like Gingrich and Santorum with only nascent organizations to compete with Romney, who has already held caucus training sessions across the state.
But with Nevada's delegates awarded proportionally, the caucus appeared unlikely to deal a knock-out punch to any of the top vote-getters in the state.
"The Paul people will show up. The Romney people will show up. So we have to get our people to show up," said Dan Burdish, a Nevada campaign coordinator for Gingrich. "A second place is a win for us as far as I'm concerned in this state. It would be phenomenal."