Mitt Romney 2007 AP
Mitt Romney Photo by AP
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Mitt Romney breezed to an easy victory in the Washington state Republican presidential caucuses on Saturday, U.S. media projected, as he gained another momentum boost heading into next week's crucial "Super Tuesday" contests in 10 states.

With about 58 percent of votes counted in the non-binding straw poll, Romney had 36 percent support, followed by U.S. Representative Ron Paul at 25 percent, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum at 24 percent and former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich at 11 percent.

The state party said it was not yet calling the contest.

The outcome marked a fourth state win for Romney this week, after the former Massachusetts governor picked up contests in Michigan, Arizona and Wyoming.

Republicans are seeking a nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6 general election.

"I'm heartened to have won the Washington caucuses, and I thank the voters for their support today," Romney said in a posting on Twitter and Facebook.

A Republican candidate needs 1,144 delegates to win the party's nomination. Some 419 delegates are at stake in the 10 primary and caucus contests on Tuesday.

States voting on Tuesday include Ohio, traditionally a national bellwether, Georgia, Tennessee and Idaho, Washington's neighbor to the east.

Turnout Heavy

Turnout was heavy at Saturday's caucuses, which gained more attention from candidates and media because of the volatile state of the Republican presidential race and the pending Super Tuesday contests.

Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state Republican Party, said voter turnout could probably exceed early estimates of 50,000, versus about 13,800 who participated in 2008.

There were scattered reports of voters being shut out of the poll when venues filled to capacity.

Washington usually holds both a caucus and a primary to allocate its delegates, but the state government this year canceled the primary, saving some e10 million.

Libertarian Paul was favored to do well in the state, given his campaign's active ground operation and legions of committed supporters.

As others turned their attention to Super Tuesday states, Paul made three stops in Washington state on Friday, finishing with a rally for about 1,000 backers in downtown Seattle. The Texan also visited a caucus site in Puyallup, south of Seattle, on Saturday.

An overflow crowd was on hand to vote in the gymnasium at Phantom Lake Elementary School in Bellevue, where 61 caucuses were pooled together.
"We had at least twice as many people as we normally do, and a thoughtful and respectful discussion of the candidates," said caucus organizer Diane Tebelius, former chair of the state Party.

Stacey Price, 46, said she backed Romney as an experienced businessman who was financially savvy and best equipped to tackle economic problems like unemployment and the federal deficit.

Some 43 delegates are at stake in Washington state, but will not be allocated until the state convention in June.