Mitt Romney clinched a comfortable victory in the Washington state caucuses, giving him fresh momentum heading into ten contests next Tuesday that could be pivotal in deciding the US Republican party presidential nominee.

With 76 per cent of precincts reporting, the former Massachusetts governor was in the lead with 36 per cent of the vote, while Ron Paul the libertarian Texas congressman, and Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, were trailing with 25 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, was further behind with 11 per cent.

The win in the Pacific Northwest on Saturday could give Mr Romney’s campaign hope that he has overcome of the scepticism among conservative voters that has dogged him since the start of the campaign and prolonged the battle for the nomination. National polls have shown Mr Romney gaining increasing favour among Republicans in recent days, to the detriment of Mr Santorum, his closest rival.

“The voters of Washington [state] have sent a signal that they do not want a Washington [DC] insider in the White House,” said Mr Romney. “They want a conservative businessman who understands the private sector and knows how to get the federal government out of the way so that the economy can once again grow vigorously.”

The win in Washington comes on the heels of victories in Arizona, Michigan, Wyoming and Maine for Mr Romney that helped defuse mounting angst about his candidacy within the Republican establishment, even triggering speculation that a new “white knight” candidate might emerge to take on Mr Obama. That chatter had intensified after Mr Santorum won several caucuses in early February and began to take the lead in polls in some other states.

Super Tuesday” will be a bigger test of whether the winds have decisively shifted back towards Mr Romney, awarding in one day 391 delegates to the Republican convention in August. Several southern states are voting next week, including Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma – as well as Massachusetts and Vermont in the Northeast. Virginia, too, will be holding a poll.

Yet Ohio is the biggest prize, since it is one of the largest and will be an important battleground in the general election against Barack Obama. Recent polls have shown the Ohio contest to be extremely close, with Mr Santorum benefitting from a small advantage against Mr Romney, who has been gaining ground in recent days.

On Saturday, Mr Romney, Mr Santorum and Mr Gingrich attended a televised forum on the economy hosted by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, in the city of Wilmington, Ohio, which was hit hard by job losses during the recession. The candidates then dispersed to Dayton, Cincinnati, Lima and Bowling Green, making some of their final pitches to voters in the western, more conservative part of the state.

Washington state results*
*76 per cent of vote counted

Mr Romney avoided any criticism of his opponents at a town hall meeting in Dayton, preferring to focus his attacks on Mr Obama. “This is a president who is out of ideas, he’s out of excuses, and in 2012 we want to make sure he’s out of office,” Mr Romney told a large crowd in the industrial heartland.

Mr Santorum was less charitable, taking Mr Romney to task for designing a health reform plan in Massachusetts that in some ways mirrors Mr Obama’s contentious 2010 health overhaul, which is reviled by the right as a government takeover of the medical system.

Mr Romney has said he would repeal the federal law on the grounds that it is not appropriate nationally, but defended the Massachusetts reform.

“[Mr Romney] is for the same government programme on a state level, but not on a federal level,” Mr Santorum told a crowded dinner audience in Lima. “It’s hardly a rallying cry for the nation.”

Meanwhile, political advertising was flooding both regional radio and television – funded by the campaigns as well as super-political action committees – the outside spending groups supporting the candidates.

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