Huckabee takes West Virginia on spoiler vote

( dpa ) - Third-place Republican contender Mike Huckabee Tuesday won 18 of West Virginia's delegates to the Republican convention thanks to the last-minute spoiler backing from lead contender John McCain.

The victory was the first final result reported during tension- packed Super Tuesday - the largest and toughest scramble for party presidential nominations in US history, with 43 contests in 24 states.

The decision for Huckabee was made at West Virginia's Republican State Convention - the only of its kind happening Tuesday.

McCain, 71, threw his backing to Huckabee, 52, on a second round of balloting to prevent McCain's chief rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, 60, from taking the prize, the Charleston ( West Virginia) Gazette reported online.

McCain is far ahead in nationwide polls and could nail down the Republican nomination on Tuesday thanks to the winner-take-all rules that govern Republican state primary election rules. Remaining state results are expected after 0001 GMT.

On the first round of balloting, Romney took 40.9 per cent of the vote, with Huckabee taking 33.1 per cent, McCain 15.5 per cent and Ron Paul, a lagging contender, 10.4 per cent.

After behind-the-scenes bartering, McCain's supporters threw enough support to give Huckabee 52 per cent - two points more than the 50 per cent needed for a decision. Romney ended up with 47 per cent and McCain with only 1 per cent.

In accord with most Republican Party state rules, the winner of the state convention will take all 18 delegates to September's Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The state convention delegates were chosen in online and mail-in balloting last month.

Another nine West Virginia delegates will be chosen on May 13, when voters will directly choose in three congressional districts. The state's three remaining delegates will be party officials likely to remain uncommitted until the convention.

West Virginia Democrats will elect all of their delegates on May 13. Most Democratic Party rules assign delegates according to vote percentages, meaning the neck-and-neck race between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could last well into March and beyond.

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