Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney became the first Republican presidential candidate Tuesday to submit signatures for Virginia’s primary election ballot.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who heads up Romney’s Virginia campaign, and a handful of volunteers delivered 16,026 signatures to the state Wednesday afternoon to get Romney’s name on the March 6, 2012 ballot.

“It is clear that Mitt Romney is the strongest Republican candidate in a general election campaign,’’ Bolling told reporters as he walked to the State Board of Elections. “I happen to think he’s the only Republican candidate who has a chance of defeating President Obama.”

Candidates have until Dec. 22 to collect 10,000 signatures from across the state and another 400 from each congressional district.

Bolling said he expects some GOP candidates to miss the deadline for signatures in Virginia, whose certification process he called the toughest in the nation.

Romney’s campaign sent staff to Virginia to help volunteers collect the thousands of signatures.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich will appear at a rally in Northern Virginia on Wednesday as he tries to get the necessary signatures for the state ballot.

Bolling, in response to a question from a reporter, said he thinks a victory by Romney would help his chances in 2013 when he faces Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) in the race for governor.

“I don’t think there’s any question that having a Republican president would help improve our chances in 2013 in Virginia, and having a Republican president who is a friend would help improve my chances in 2013.”

President Obama became the first presidential candidate to submit his signatures Dec. 2.

The Democratic Party of Virginia is expected to begin certifying those signatures Thursday afternoon, and finish the task by 5 p.m. Friday.

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