By SHANNON McCAFFREY and KASIE HUNT
LAS VEGAS - A confident Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of failing to do enough to create jobs as he campaigned Friday ahead of GOP presidential caucuses this weekend in a state with sky-high unemployment and foreclosure rates. Newt Gingrich, who is fighting for a respectable showing here, rolled out a fresh line of criticism by comparing the former Massachusetts governor to Obama.
"It isn't good enough for the Republican Party to nominate Obama lite," Gingrich told a boisterous crowd at a rally at country music club in this entertainment hub. He argued that Romney "clearly is against the American ideal" and doesn't understand the free market.
Romney didn't immediately counter the attack.
He cruised to victory in Florida last Tuesday, handily won this state four years ago and is heavily favored to win Saturday's contest. Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also are on the ballot. But Romney, a Mormon, has an existing network of support from his 2008 race and likely will again benefit from the support of members of his church, many of whom live in Nevada.
Clearly in command, Romney spent Friday largely ignoring Gingrich and focusing the on the economy, and for good reason. Nevada's unemployment rate was 12.6 in December - well above the national average - after a record economic bust that saw bustling construction sites abandoned and master-planned communities overtaken by foreclosures.
As he swept through Reno, Elko and Las Vegas, Romney sought to convince weary voters that he alone had the prescriptions for what ails the country - even as the government reported that a quarter-million Americans streamed back into the workforce in January and unemployment tumbled to 8.3 percent. Romney acknowledged the brightening economic picture but argued that it had little to do with Obama or his policies.
"The policies of this administration have not been helpful. They, in fact, have been harmful. They have slowed down the recovery, made it more difficult," Romney said at a home and yard supply company in Reno, where he talked about the economy with local business leaders. "The president deserves the blame that he'll receive in this campaign."
Gingrich, in an interview on CNN, said the Democrat's policies have driven up the national debt and raised the price of gasoline.
"The economy even at 8.3 percent is dramatically weaker than it was under Ronald Reagan at this exact same point in his first term," he said.
But as Gingrich looks to recover from a shellacking in Florida, he chose to spend much of his time hammering home his latest argument against a Romney presidency - that there is virtually no difference between Romney and Obama.
For the second day in a row, Gingrich castigated Romney for saying that he's not focused on the poor because they already have a safety net. Romney has said he misspoke, but Gingrich sought to use the moment to gain the upper hand, saying it's another instance where Romney and Obama are similar.
"Obama is big food stamp. He's little food stamp. But they both think foods stamps are OK," said Gingrich. "I don't think food stamps are the future for America."
Invoking a deep-pocked donor to liberal causes, Gingrich added: "I don't think the Republican Party wants to approve a George Soros-approved candidate. I think we want a candidate who represents Americans who work, pay taxes and believe in the Declaration of Independence - not somebody who clearly is against the American ideal."
Gingrich, who has been on the defensive over his work for Freddie Mac, also sought to turn the tables on Romney, who invested in the housing giant that has been blamed for helping cause the housing meltdown.
"We did not create Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac so rich guys like Mitt Romney and Goldman Sachs could make money," Gingrich said.
Gingrich has kept a light schedule in Nevada as he fights for a respectable showing and looks for the GOP contest to turn to the South again in March.
Paul campaigned in Nye County, Nevada, the sole county he carried in the state's caucuses in 2008. The Texas congressman came in second behind Mitt Romney that year, but he hopes to win the state outright this time.
"The will listen to Nevada if we do well here," Paul told a raucous rally of a few hundred supporters in Pahrump.
Paul was set to address a gathering of gun enthusiasts in Las Vegas before flying to Minnesota, where he will campaign ahead of that state's caucuses on Tuesday.
Santorum was in Missouri, which holds a non-binding contest Tuesday. Gingrich is not on the ballot there.
To that end, Santorum cast Gingrich's effort as a decaying campaign and said that the former House speaker's decision to stay in the race was only helping Romney.
"With Speaker Gingrich out of the race, almost all of the votes he has go to me," Santorum said in Hannibal, Mo., pointing to the upcoming Missouri contest as a chance to illustrate his point. "When we go head to head with Gov. Romney, we can beat him."
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Hannibal, Mo., and Beth Fouhy in Pahrump, Nev., contributed to this report.