Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, campaign in Las Vegas the day before… (Ethan Miller, Getty Images )
Reporting from Sparks, Nev., and Las Vegas — As he campaigned around the state the day before Nevadans cast their votes in the Republican presidential nominating contest, Mitt Romney exuded a front-runner's confidence. Keeping his eye on November, he aimed his rhetorical fire at the man he wants to replace in the White House.
But Newt Gingrich, who is expected to finish second, kept his sights on caucus day here Saturday, slashing away at the former Massachusetts governor and hoping to make a decent showing after a stinging loss in Florida. The former House speaker's South Carolina surprise victory seems like a long time ago.
While Romney was telling a handful of entrepreneurs and government officials that his 25 years as a businessman qualify him to replace President Obama, Gingrich was telling supporters that Romney does not understand the free market, is not a genuine conservative and is against "American ideals."
"It isn't good enough for the Republican to nominate Obama lite," Gingrich told about 100 people at a Las Vegas country bar, some of whom smoked and drank beer during the morning rally.
"I think we want a candidate who works, pays taxes and believes in the Declaration of Independence, not someone who is clearly against the American ideals."
Those are the very charges that Romney has leveled against Obama. In a round-table discussion with business owners, Romney dismissed the Labor Department's report that the unemployment rate had dropped slightly, to 8.3%. The news may be welcome, Romney said, but it is long overdue.
"This president has not helped the process," Romney said. "He's hurt it."
Later in the day, Gingrich said in a statement, "Anemic growth is not growth.… Here in Nevada there is 13% unemployment and a tremendous opportunity in the energy sector — yet the Obama administration has most of the state's natural resources bound up in red tape and regulation."
Romney, a multimillionaire who made his fortune in the private equity business, has been criticized for seeming insensitive, particularly to people in dire economic straits.
Last fall, he told Nevadans in the grip of a foreclosure crisis that the market should be allowed to bottom out without government intervention.
But he has also shown gestures of compassion that have paid off politically. Romney made a lasting impression on two Nevada officials last year when he reached out to them after local tragedies.
At the end of Romney's discussion with business owners at a building supply company, Reno Mayor Bob Cashell thanked Romney for calling him after an air race crash killed a pilot and 10 spectators in September.
"I can never tell you how much it meant to me when I picked up my cellphone and answered a call from you," Cashell said. "You called me to tell me your hearts and prayers were with me, and that you would do whatever you could. I can never tell you how much that meant."
Romney nodded. "This part of the state has been hard hit, I know that," he said. "Fires and shootings and, of course, the air race tragedy. This has been an awfully tough time."
"Nobody else running for this office or anything called me up, except you," Cashell said.
Later, Romney told some employees of the supply company that he would be sensitive.
"I'll listen," he said to few dozen bundled-up workers sitting in an unheated warehouse area. "I will listen to business people and to working people and to folks across the country to understand what's going on in their lives."
Romney has worked hard to paint Obama as a nice man who is simply in over his head as president. He went a step further Friday, saying the president is clueless about the unemployed.
"The other day, the president was at a Google town hall," Romney said. "A woman came on and said her husband, who was an engineer, was out of work and had been out of work for a long time. The president was surprised to hear that. He thought engineers were able to get jobs pretty easily. And he found it interesting. How can you be that detached from what's going on?"
(During that online event last week, Obama urged the woman, Jennifer Weddel of Fort Worth, Texas, to send him her husband's resume. "I'd be interested in finding out what's happening there," Obama said, as he understood that high-tech workers like engineers were in high demand.)
Gingrich continued to hammer Romney for telling a television interviewer Wednesday that he was not concerned about "the very poor" because they have a social safety net. Romney has since backtracked.
"If you're a genuine conservative, first of all, you don't say that you don't care about the poor," Gingrich said.
"If you're a genuine conservative, you believe we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and we think it is the left which has abandoned and betrayed the poor because its safety net is actually a spider web and it traps people into dependency."
A Romney spokesman accused Gingrich of "borrowing Barack Obama's liberal talking points."