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Nevada GOP caucuses assume unique role after divisive early voting season

Nevada Republicans are ready and positioned for their turn in the political spotlight with caucuses scheduled for Saturday to determine the Silver State's allocation of 28 binding delegates to this summer's GOP convention.

It's an unusual role for Nevada which has historically played an insignificant part in the presidential selection process. Now, at least for a few days, it will be the center of attention as all four remaining top tier candidates travel the state looking for support.

While the venue has shifted west by three time zones the fiery rhetoric heard in recent weeks is likely to continue.

Florida's big winner, Mitt Romney, hit Newt Gingrich hard the past week over the former House speaker's proposal to colonize the moon. It's a line of attack that's moving west. A statement blasted out Tuesday from the Romney campaign wondered if Gingrich would now promise stardust for Nevada caucus-goers.

"Newt Gingrich has made expensive promises in every early-voting state," Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said. "It's just more politics as usual and fiscal recklessness from a Washington insider. Expensive and empty promises won't help Nevadans who are suffering under dire economic conditions."

Nevada is the epicenter of the housing bubble. At the end of last year more than half of all homes sold in the state were in foreclosure. It is also boasts the nation's largest unemployment rate at 12.6 percent.

Gingrich arrived in Reno early this morning was spending the rest of his day there and in Carson City before traveling to Las Vegas in voter-rich Clark County. Before leaving Florida, Gingrich said the voters of that state had reduced the field to just himself and Romney. One of Gingrich’s events scheduled for Thursday is at a upscale Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas where he will speak to Hispanic voters and also hold a fundraiser.

Rick Santorum doesn't agree with Gingrich's analysis of the race and says he's very much in the fight. He arrived in Nevada Tuesday night for a rally at his campaign headquarters in Las Vegas. He also offered a positive outlook for his candidacy. 

"We're in pretty good shape," he told Fox News. "We're starting to build slowly."

Ron Paul was also in Nevada last night telling supporters in Henderson that caucuses like Nevada's, featuring a proportional allocation of delegates, help his campaign. 

"If you have an irate tireless minority you do well in the caucus states," Paul said to cheers. In recent days his campaign has touted the grassroots support of various groups, including Mormons -- seemingly Romney supporters -- who should make up a sizable voting block on Saturday.

In an op-ed that appeared in Tuesday's Las Vegas Sun newspaper, Paul highlighted his support for exempting wages earned as tips from federal income taxes. It's a proposal that's likely to go over well in the state's heavily populated service sector. But it's unclear how many of those workers will be able to cast ballots Saturday. It's a closed caucus exclusive to pre-registered Republicans.

All of the campaigns will spend most of their time in Clark County which features nearly three-quarters of the state's population. Reno is the state's only other population center and is expected to get some attention as well.

Paul's schedule also includes a stop Friday in Pahrump located in Nye County. Four years ago the rural outpost in state's southwestern corner --home to many of the state's legalized brothels -- went for Paul. It was the only Nevada county that Romney didn't carry. The 2008 contest was overshadowed by the South Carolina primary, which was held on the same day. Romney was the only candidate to seriously campaign in Nevada and he carried the state with 51 percent of the vote.

Caucuses traditionally reward campaigns with strong organization and that would favor to reward Romney and Paul who've maintained a presence in the state for many months. The Gingrich and Santorum campaigns in Nevada started only in the past few weeks though officials for each candidate say they've been overwhelmed with volunteers since the start of the new year. A December poll showed Romney in the lead over Gingrich by 4 points. Updated surveys are expected to come out Thursday.

Saturday's caucuses will largely be over by noon but the results from Clark County will be held until nightfall because of a special caucus in Las Vegas for voters who observe the Saturday Sabbath. The decision to hold a separate caucus site caused a minor controversy when it was learned that it will be held at a school bearing the name of a major Gingrich supporter. 

A spokesman for Sheldon Adelson said the casino magnate had no role in pushing for the extra location, which is expected to draw a couple hundred people. State officials decided to hold results for the rest of Clark County until that caucus meeting starts.

A major difference between Nevada and the more-celebrated caucuses in Iowa is that Saturday's voters will be able to cast secret ballots after going to their caucus site and meeting with others from their precinct. Also for the first time, Nevada voters will be required to show government-issued identification in order to vote.

The state's 28 delegates will be based on the statewide totals. One delegate will be awarded for every 3.57 percent of votes received, making it likely that all four candidates will walk away with delegates.

Romney has secured the endorsement of many high-profile state officials including U.S. Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei. Gov. Brian Sandoval hasn't publically announced his support for one of the remaining candidates. Last year, he endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is no longer in the race. Fox News learned that a proposed meeting between Sandoval and Gingrich was scrapped. A spokesman for Sandoval said the governor is happy to make time for all of the candidates but it was unlikely that another endorsement would happen this week.

State officials are confident that turnout will exceed the 44,000 that showed in 2008. But various county officers contacted by Fox News said they hadn't seen much evidence to suggest an increased turnout from four years ago is expected. One county chairman even said voters remain confused about the caucus process and wished the party would abandon it for a primary.

Fox News' Joy Lin contributed to this report.