LAS VEGAS - Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won an overwhelming victory in Nevada's Republican presidential caucuses, according to CNN and NBC News projections. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are battling for second, with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum trailing.
Returns from 14 percent of Nevada's caucus-goers show Romney with 44 percent, Gingrich with 24 percent, Paul with 19 percent, and Santorum with 12 percent. No results have been reported yet from Clark County, which is expected to account for more than half the total vote.
A Nevada victory would be Romney's second win in a row and his third in the first five contests in the state-by-state battle to find a Republican challenger to President Barack Obama in November's general election.
Two polls taken this week in Nevada showed the former Massachusetts governor with a lead of at least 20 points or more over Gingrich after recapturing his front-runner status with a convincing win in Florida on Tuesday.
The caucus sessions began at many of the 125 sites around Nevada on Saturday morning, although final results were not expected until after 7 p.m. PST. A final caucus gathering to accommodate Jews observing the Sabbath on Saturday will begin in Las Vegas at that time.
Nevada, which has a faltering economy and a big Mormon population, is friendly territory for Romney, a Mormon and former head of a private equity firm. He captured 51 percent of the vote in 2008 to win the state during his failed 2008 presidential bid.
He has stressed his business background as a cure for the ailing economy in Nevada, which has the country's highest state unemployment rate, 12.6 percent in December, and the highest home foreclosure rate.
"This has been a tough three years," Romney told supporters in Henderson, Nevada, outside Las Vegas, on Friday night at his last campaign stop before the vote. "It's time now for Barack Obama to get out of the way."
Romney hopes Nevada's caucuses will launch a February winning streak that could position him for a knockout blow to Gingrich during the 10 "Super Tuesday" contests on March 6 - or sooner.
Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri will have nominating contests on Tuesday. Maine will wrap up its weeklong caucuses next Saturday, and Arizona and Michigan hold February 28 contests.
Romney won Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Maine and Michigan in 2008. He came in second in Arizona to native son and eventual nominee John McCain, an Arizona senator, and he finished third in Missouri.
Gingrich is hoping to hang in the race until March, when there will be contests in several Southern states where the former Georgia congressman believes he can do well.
At a campaign stop in Las Vegas on Friday, Gingrich called himself "the candidate of people power versus money power," returning to his theme that Romney is a flawed product of the elite and a Wall Street favorite.
But some Romney supporters say they are not turned off by his vast wealth even though Gingrich has made it a campaign issue. They say they're backing Romney because he has the best chance to beat Obama.
"I think he's the only one who can beat Obama," said George Peterson, a retired Air Force veteran who attended a caucus at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas.
Gayle Darin, an executive assistant at the Bellagio hotel, said she thought it was time for Republicans to pick a candidate and begin to focus on Obama.
"A lot of people have rallied behind Romney now," she said. "We've got to step up and get Obama out of office."
Ernie Prosch, a retired airline pilot, backed Gingrich because he liked his ideas for turning around the economy.
"What the country needs is somebody to come up with ideas on how to get jobs," he said. "I don't think you need to be a businessman to do that, and I don't think you need millions."
At the caucus, voters broke into small groups by precinct to elect delegates to the county convention in March and cast ballots in the presidential race.
At the precinct attended by Darin, Prosch and Peterson, the final tally was 12 for Romney, seven for Paul, three for Gingrich and none for Santorum. At a caucus at a middle school in Henderson, Romney won 51 votes to nine for Paul, five for Santorum and two for Gingrich.
Paul and Santorum have also pledged to keep fighting beyond Nevada. Santorum campaigned in Colorado on Saturday, and Paul visited Minnesota.
Romney turned his attention to the next round with a visit to Colorado before returning to Las Vegas for a victory party on Saturday night.
At least 1,114 delegates are needed to secure the nomination in August. Nevada will award 28 delegates and split them proportionally based on the vote total.
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