Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama took an early lead over rival Hillary Clinton in caucuses in Wyoming on Saturday as their tight race left them battling for every nominating delegate.
With about 78 per cent of the vote counted, Obama was ahead 59 to 40 per cent, with 4,000 votes to 2,756 for the former first lady, according to the rural state's Democratic Party.
Wyoming, dubbed cowboy country, has only 12 delegates, a tiny number compared to the 2,025 needed to secure the Democratic Party's presidential nomination at its August convention.
But with no candidate yet able to lock in victory after eight long weeks of primaries, every vote and every delegate still counts in the battle to be the party's nominee in the November presidential election against Republican John McCain.
Perhaps more importantly, with only two contests before the end of April, every win carries weight in the battle for momentum with the candidates already eyeing Mississippi, which holds its primaries on Tuesday.
In 23 caucuses around Wyoming, Democrats -- only about 25 per cent of the staunchly Republican state's electorate -- were choosing between Clinton or Obama.
Voters flocked to the polls in what officials said was heavy turnout in a state known for its Republican sympathies. "I didn't know there was this many Democrats in the whole state," party official Dick Sadler told AFP.
Rene Jones, general manager of a hotel hosting a Casper caucus, said more than 2,000 people showed up for the event and the fire marshal ordered extra rooms to be opened.
The caucus in Casper, a city of 50,000, started about two hours late because of the overwhelming crowds, as election officials were greeted by a line snaking around the building.
"It is very busy for Casper, Wyoming," said Dolly Peake, a Clinton supporter, as more than 2,000 waited to vote, with the caucuses due to end at 6:00pm (0100 GMT Sunday).
A longtime supporter of Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, Peake said, "To hell with Obama -- I want Hillary!
But Cheryl Flores, an Obama supporter, said she was backing the Illinois senator "because his campaign was more organized, he didn't have as many negative attacks and he wants to get the troops out of Iraq as soon as possible."
She said it was exciting that Wyoming, often ignored by White House hopefuls as too small to be bothered with, was getting its turn in the spotlight this year.
"We have 12 delegates and I think we can contribute to this campaign," she said.
A national Newsweek poll released on Friday showed the two senators in a virtual tie in their epic battle, with Obama on 45 percent support to Clinton's 44 percent.
The two were also virtually equal in voters' eyes on the issue many see most important: the sagging US economy.
After Wyoming, Obama and Clinton will face voters in the bigger, southern state of Mississippi, where 33 delegates are at stake. And the battle will then move to Pennsylvania on April 22.
Obama is favored in both Wyoming and Mississippi, but with his current delegate count at 1,581 to Clinton's 1,460, according to the independent website RealClearPolitics, neither contest will settle the fight.
On Friday, Obama led off with a stump speech before more than 1,300 people here, promising to end the war in Iraq by 2009 while continuing military operations in Afghanistan.
He said the current administration had "fanned the flames of anti-Americanism world wide" and that as president he would seek to repair America's image with its allies.
Clinton spoke to a much smaller audience at the local junior college and also called for an end to the war in Iraq, saying "the Iraqis need to know that they do not have a blank check."
She also restated her positions that America "should be respected" and should "lead the world again with moral authority."
Turning to the economy, Clinton promised to "change the tax code to deal with companies which move job overseas," and like Obama, she supported alternative energy and clean coal programs -- an important issue in Wyoming -- the nation's biggest coal producing state.
A Republican stronghold and home to Vice President Dick Cheney, Wyoming has the smallest population of any state with just 500,000 people.