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Romney Takes Early Lead in Nevada Caucuses

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets the Fisher family backstage prior to a campaign rally in Elko, Nev., Friday, Feb. 3, 2012.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has a strong lead in early results from Saturday's Republican presidential caucus in the western U. S. state of Nevada, less than a week after his big victory in the Florida primary.

With around seven percent of precincts reporting, Romney was ahead with 40 percent of the vote. Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich are locked in a battle for second place, followed by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

Gingrich has announced he will hold a news conference Saturday evening, but his campaign had not indicated what he will discuss.

Nevada is the fifth state, and the first in the U.S. West, to hold a presidential nominating contest.

Romney won Nevada the first time he ran for the Republican nomination in 2008, and was expected again to get a boost in the state from fellow followers of the Mormon religion. In 2008, Mormons made up about a quarter of Nevada Republican caucus voters, and 95 percent of them backed Romney.

And before the voting had even ended, Romney had set his sights to the next hurdle, and was campaigning in the nearby western state of Colorado ahead of Tuesday's caucus.

At a rally in Colorado Springs, Romney spoke about the economy, criticizing President Barack Obama for, he says, too much deficit spending and failing to get unemployment back under eight percent. He said there are signs the economy is improving, but said the credit was due to small business owners and the private sector, and not Mr. Obama's policies.

"This president came into office and said okay we're going to get this economy going by borrowing $787 billion in a stimulus. And he said if he borrowed that money, he'd be able to hold unemployment below eight percent. It has not been below eight percent since. And he's celebrating that it's at 8.3. Well that's still above the emergency line of eight percent. And by the way, he doesn't get credit for things getting better. I'm delighted thigns are getting better. I think they are. But the people who deserve credit for making things better are people like Tom who built a place like this and employed people in this great state," he said.

Santorum was also campaigning in Colorado Saturday, while Paul focused on Minnesota, which will also hold their presidential caucus on Tuesday.

To win the presidential nomination, a candidate needs 1,144 of 2,286 delegate votes at the convention.

In a speech in Minnesota Saturday, Texas Congressman Ron Paul linked the ballooning U.S. debt to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The debt in these last ten years, fighting these undeclared, unwinnable wars, that we don't know when they will end. We're not even sure whom we're fighting. And our national debt went up $4 trillion because of these wars. Just think if these $4 trillion had not been spent overseas bombing and killing people. What if all that money had been spent back here at home. Maybe the middle class would still be a lot wealthier than it is today," he said.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.