LAS VEGAS (AP) — If Mitt Romney wins the Nevada caucus Saturday, he might well feel special gratitude for the state's Mormon voters.
Romney, a Mormon himself with close ties to church leaders, is expected to carry an overwhelming majority of votes from Nevada members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Indeed, most Republican Mormon voters backed him here in the presidential caucus four years ago.
Courting the Mormon vote in a Republican contest in Nevada and other Western states is somewhat akin to wooing evangelicals in South Carolina or Iowa: It's hard to win without them.
"Along with seniors, they are as reliable of a voting bloc as there is," said Robert Uithoven, a Republican consultant based in Reno. "I don't care if it is snowing sideways on Election Day, they show up."
There are just over 175,000 Mormons in the state, roughly 7 percent of Nevada's population. But they carry more clout than that because they turn out in such high numbers. Nearly a quarter of all 2008 Republican presidential caucus voters here were Mormon.
With so much at stake, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are working to make their own cases that they share Mormon values. But it's hard to compete with Romney's support from his church brothers and sisters.
Nevada is the first state in the Republican nomination fight where that could make much of a difference.
Whereas Romney's faith was widely viewed nationally as a liability in 2008, running as a Mormon in the West guarantees a built-in voting bloc. Nearly 2.9 million members of the church live in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, California and Arizona. In contrast, there are barely 206,000 Mormons in the first four GOP states of New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, according to church estimates.
Church members tend to be conservative Republicans, and Romney has been assailed by GOP rivals as not conservative enough. But that's not expected to matter much here.
State Assemblyman Ira Hansen is one of Nevada's few Mormon lawmakers who hasn't endorsed Romney. Hansen, a plumbing contractor from Reno, says Romney is "way too liberal," but he still expects the former Massachusetts governor to grab the vast majority of church members' votes on Saturday.
"Because of our history, the fact that we have always been kind of a pariah .. it creates a little bit of a group mentality and that benefits Romney," Hansen said.
Even Mormon Democrats in Nevada claim Romney as a point of pride within the church.
"The LDS church has the same affinity toward Mitt Romney as African-Americans feel toward President Obama," said Democratic state Sen. John Lee. "We don't look at him as the governor from Massachusetts. We don't look at him as the leader who saved the Olympics. We look at him as a man who knows what the values of our church are."
Roughly nine in 10 Mormon voters backed Romney in 2008 in the Nevada caucuses, fueling his easy victory in a contest most candidates conceded to him. Although church leaders are prohibited from endorsing a partisan candidate, Romney enjoys the support of many LDS government and business leaders in Nevada, including Bill Brady, who runs a successful janitorial supply company that provided the background of Romney's Las Vegas rally Wednesday night.
Romney's rivals are still hoping for at least some Mormon support when voters make their decisions, here and elsewhere in the West.
Texas Rep. Paul, who took second in Nevada in 2008, has been courting Mormon voters for months, setting up a "Latter Day Saints for Ron Paul" Facebook page, holding special phone bank hours aimed at registered Republican Mormon voters and sending out frequent campaign emails highlighting his Mormon volunteers.
"No presidential candidate has a monopoly on this crucial Western states voter segment," spokesman Gary Howard said.
Gingrich and Santorum, who only recently launched campaign operations in Nevada, have done little to appeal directly to church members. But their religious values — both are Catholics — could serve as a common ground with some Mormon voters who revere family and faith.
Santorum has been particularly careful with his words when asked whether Mormons are Christian, a sore subject among members of the church, who recognize Jesus Christ as their savior.
"All I know is that every Mormon I know is a good and decent person, has great moral values," the former Pennsylvania senator said in a TV interview.
The low-key approach to the Mormon vote by Gingrich and Santorum is probably a sign that neither believes he can do much to blunt Romney's overwhelming support.
"I think that's probably the assumption in a lot of camps," said Zachary Moyle, a Nevada Republican consultant working with Santorum's campaign.
Church members have held great influence in the state's affairs since they settled in Nevada during the second half of the 19th century.
Nevada's U.S. senators, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Dean Heller, both are Mormon. Church members make up 14 percent of the state Legislature, and the mayors of the state's second and fourth most populous cities, Henderson and North Las Vegas, also are Mormon. Church members are credited with helping Reid narrowly win re-election against Republican John Ensign in 1998. The contest was decided by 428 votes.
The church stresses political engagement, urging its members to "play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections," according to its website.
"We as a Mormon people have always been encouraged to be involved in civic affairs," said Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, who campaigned for Romney in 2008 and planned to call voters this week to urge them to caucus.
Church members are also taught that the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired and that the nation's founders were directed by God.
"It's not that the church goes around knocking on doors saying, 'Please, get out the vote,'" said Republican pollster Gary C. Lawrence, a former Mormon clergyman. "We just feel strong about defending the country and defending the Constitution. And you can't be true to that principle without voting."
There could be an opening for Paul, Gingrich and Santorum. In a heated battle to be crowned the anti-Romney, all three candidates have stressed their socially conservative roots, values that appeal to church voters who are taught to oppose abortion and gay marriage.
Jorja Leavitt, 33, went to Brigham Young University in Utah with one of Romney's sons and voted for Romney in 2008. But the Las Vegas marketing consultant said he won't be able to count on her vote again. She said Paul's anti-war and anti-intervention policies are more closely aligned with the church.
"My church beliefs aren't separate from any of my other beliefs," she said. "Mormons are very peaceful people. We are not known for aggression, and I think Ron Paul embodies that."
Las Vegas political consultant Jesse Law said Paul's campaign has been aggressive about calling church voters and using Mormon terms like "brothers" to describe his church supporters. In contrast, Romney has done little Mormon-specific outreach this year, leading some voters to question whether he is taking them for granted.
Law said campaigns in Nevada overlook the Mormon vote at their own peril.
"These are the super voters," said Law, a Mormon tea party supporter. He's voting for Paul.