Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop at William Jewell College on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 in Liberty, Mo.

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HONOLULU — Hawaii Republicans gave Mitt Romney a big victory in their caucus Tuesday, softening the blow from his losses earlier in the night in Alabama and Mississippi.

Romney held a narrow lead over Rick Santorum for much of evening. But when heavily Mormon areas reported in later, the former Massachusetts governor surged to victory.

With all precincts reporting, Romney had 45 percent of the votes to Santorum's 25 percent. The former Pennsylvania senator won both Southern primaries.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul was third in Hawaii's caucus with 18 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 11 percent.

Romney won at least nine of the 17 Hawaii GOP delegates at stake. Santorum picked up four, and Ron Paul got one. Three other delegates have yet to be determined, and three additional Hawaii "superdelegates" are not assigned by caucus vote and may back whichever candidate they choose at the Republican National Convention.

Fritz Rohlfing, chairman of Romney's Hawaii campaign, was pleased with the results.

"It's very good for us," he said. "We showed strength across all the districts in the state. That's what we were shooting for, so that's what's really gratifying."

Hawaii Republicans changed the format for their caucus to increase interest, and it worked. Turnout was heavier than expected, with more than 9,300 votes cast and some precincts still to report.

Republican caucuses in the past stretched over two weeks and votes for presidential candidates weren't even counted. The state's GOP presidential delegates were chosen at the state convention months later, and then they were free to vote for whomever they pleased.

Under the new system, voting was limited to a two-hour window Tuesday evening, and the delegates are apportioned based on vote totals.

Hawaii is a Democratic stronghold and normally gets little or no attention from Republican presidential candidates. But with the nomination fight far from over, Romney, Santorum and Paul all sent surrogates.

Romney's son, Matt, flew to Oahu on Sunday to rally support in Honolulu and on the North Shore, which has a significant Latter-day Saints community. Elizabeth Santorum and Ronnie Paul Jr. also traveled to Hawaii to campaign for their fathers.

Gingrich, who visited Maui six months ago, did not send national campaign representatives to Hawaii, opting to focus on the Alabama and Mississippi primaries instead. He did make time appear remotely on a local television newscast Tuesday morning.

The Hawaii GOP opened 41 polling locations across the state, and anyone who filled out a party registration was eligible to vote.

Romney supporters at the McKinley High School caucus site in Honolulu said they thought he was the candidate most likely to beat President Barack Obama in November.

"I like the fact that he has a conservative base but is less hardline on the social issues. I think that's kind of the way the Republican Party needs to go," said Kelly Griffith, a 51-year-old U.S. Department of Defense employee.

Chris Clothier, 71, agreed.

"I think (Rick) Santorum is getting a lot of the very conservative vote at this point, however I don't think he can beat Obama," she said.

A handful of Paul supporters wore campaign T-shirts as they waited in line to cast a ballot at McKinley.

Brandon L. Kim, a 30-year-old Kapiolani Community College student, didn't have his preference printed across his chest, but he spoke passionately when asked why he supported Paul.

"He's for limited government. He is for sound money," Lee said. "He's basically out to save the world."