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Romney wins Washington state caucuses

KENNEWICK, Wash. -- Mitt Romney won Washington's fiercely contested Republican caucuses Saturday, giving him an important boost on the eve of Super Tuesday, when 10 states vote.

The former Massachusetts governor won 38.1 percent of the vote with 54.4 percent of precincts reporting.

Rep. Ron Paul of Lake Jackson and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were vying for second place.

Paul had 24.2 percent of the vote; Santorum had 23.6 percent.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 11.2 percent.

The defeats for Paul and Santorum could be a stinging blow. On Thursday, Santorum told a Pasco crowd, "We can put this race on a whole other plane if Washington speaks conservatively on Saturday."

Paul also had high hopes here. He ran ads, drew enthusiastic crowds throughout the state and greeted voters Saturday in Puyallup. He has counted on strong showings in caucus states, where turnout is low and activists more prominent.

But Romney, who campaigned in Washington on Thursday and Friday, had the support of key Republican establishment figures and argued that he is a true conservative.

Romney will undoubtedly trumpet support from Republicans in the West's second-largest state as proof that he's hurtling toward the nomination, even though less than 2 percent of the state's 3.7 million voters were expected to turn out. It's his third victory in a big state in five days; he won Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday.

"I'm heartened to have won the Washington caucuses, and I thank the voters for their support. Every day that passes with Barack Obama in the White House is a day in which America's recovery from the economic crisis is delayed," he said Saturday.

In a year when Republicans have valued electability highly, the strong showing could influence on-the-fence voters.

The Washington caucus results are nonbinding but start the selection of the state's 43 delegates to the Republican National Convention in August. But because of the crowds, the results could trigger controversy.

Turnout was heavy in some places, and there were some reports that people had to be turned away at facilities that reached capacity.

Ray Swenson, a Richland lawyer, criticized local GOP officials for poor organization and said the results should be invalidated.

"I think it's illegal," Swenson shouted to a gathered crowd, many of whom were recording him with cellphone cameras. "The Republican Party leadership is taking away our freedom."

He added, "This is exactly equal to walking into a polling place and being told: 'We've run out of ballots. We didn't expect this many people. Go home.'"

Romney appeared to be leading in Seattle and the Puget Sound region, the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver and south central Washington.

Paul was a favorite in rural counties in northeast and southeast Washington and along the Columbia River Gorge.

Santorum led in just two counties.

Gingrich did not appear to be winning any counties.