LAS VEGAS - Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney looked set to romp to victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday, cementing his position as frontrunner to take on President Barack Obama in November.
With most of the caucuses already closing across the state, early results appeared to confirm the expected outcome, with the biggest question being whether Romney's main rival Newt Gingrich would come in second.
With one percent of votes counted, Romney was on 54 percent of the vote, compared to 19 percent for libertarian congressman Ron Paul, 18 percent for Gingrich and nine percent for former senator Rick Santorum, according to CNN.
The Silver State, voting four days after Romney scored a crushing win in the Florida primary, elects 28 delegates to the Republican convention in August which will crown the party's candidate to take on Obama.
In a sign of how predictable the result was, Romney was already looking ahead to the next stage of the state-by-state race, and popped over to Colorado to campaign ahead of its primary polls on Tuesday. He was due back in Las Vegas for a caucus event Saturday evening.
"I was always leaning towards Newt Gingrich, but I think I'll vote for Romney today," said retiree Catherine Scherer as she arrived at a caucus in suburban Las Vegas.
"I think he would make a good man in there... He's more stable, he had some very good answers last night on the television," the 78-year-old told AFP at the Ernest A Becker Sr Middle School.
The former Massachusetts governor was given a huge lead in Nevada of 50 percent against 25 for Gingrich in an eve-of-caucus poll.
But there is no sign that any of his three opponents, led by former House speaker Gingrich, plan to throw in the towel.
Romney is expected to repeat his triumph here of four years ago, helped by strong backing from fellow Mormons which could see him consign nearest rival Gingrich to a distant second place.
"Everybody knows he's going to win, it's about how big he wins, and how much of the vote he gets," said David Damore, associate professor of politics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"They're basically competing against expectations now: can he do better than 50 percent, which is about what he got four years ago?"
Gingrich, who turned the Republican race for the White House on its head with a big win in the South Carolina primary last month, is struggling to regain momentum after a heavy loss to Romney in Florida on Tuesday.
Nevada is the first western US state to take part in the nominating contest which will eventually select the Republican Party's challenger.
Romney is aiming for a third victory over Gingrich, after scoring wins in New Hampshire and Florida, and he seems to have tamped down a row that broke out after he said he was "not concerned" about "very poor" Americans.
He insisted the context of his comments showed he was concerned about all Americans, but his focus is on middle class voters who have been worst hit by a recession and sluggish US recovery after the 2008 global downturn.
The remarks about the poor sparked new accusations that the wealthy former venture capitalist, who lives off the returns made on his investments, is out of touch with ordinary voters.
Gingrich in an eve-of-caucus rally in Las Vegas renewed his attacks on the frontrunner for the slip.
"Governor Romney is trying to recover from his boo boo," he said to laughter and whoops from supporters at a music bar in the desert gambling city.
Romney also raised eyebrows after he released tax filings showing he earned $20 million from his investments in 2010 and paid just 13.9 percent in taxes -- a lower rate than many struggling Americans.
But voting in Las Vegas Saturday, 73-year-old Carl Lindstrom said the former Massachusetts governor would also get his vote. "I think he has the presence, the prestige, the knowledge," he said.