GOP voters in Wash. caucus on presidential choices

By Rachel La Corte

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Voters line up to check in for a Washington state Republican caucus meeting, Saturday, March, 3, 2012, in Puyallup, Wash.

Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Thousands of Republican voters crowded schools, town halls and homes across the state Saturday for Washington's GOP presidential caucuses, the first meaningful party contests in the state in recent memory that drew so many people that one Eastern Washington location turned away hundreds of people.

Tony Benegas, a member of the Benton County Republican Committee who ran the Kennewick caucuses, estimated up to 800 people were turned away from Three Rivers Convention Center. Organizers had expected about 1,500 people, but many more showed up Saturday morning.

Benegas said the caucuses were run by volunteers, and there weren't enough to check everyone in. He said there also weren't enough computers to help voters look up their registrations, and the rooms were full.

"There's not much we can say, except, 'We're sorry,'" he said. "We tried to get as many people in as possible."

Results from the straw poll vote on which candidate caucus-goers want to see take on President Barack Obama are expected to be released early evening.

"The level of enthusiasm was really high," said state party spokesman Josh Amato, who said that because of the crowded primary, "people are really excited to be able to have a say."

While the caucuses are a nonbinding contest, state Republicans say it could create momentum for the four candidates on their last stop before Super Tuesday, where voting takes place in 10 states.

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have all visited the state in recent weeks, some twice. Paul was the only one still in the state on Saturday, speaking to supporters before a caucus in Puyallup. There are about 6,700 precincts in Washington, and there were several reports of precincts being standing room only. Republicans have predicted up to 60,000 participants across the state.

"All of a sudden we're important and the center of attention," said state Republican chairman Kirby Wilbur.

In the liberal stronghold of Seattle, hundreds gathered at the Labor Temple in the Belltown neighborhood. High school senior Cole Thomas said he was supporting Paul because of his pledges to bring troops back home from overseas, and because he agrees with his Libertarian stances on things like drug policy and other issues.

"I'm big on small government," the 18-year-old said.

In Olympia, roughly 500 people packed the Red Lion Hotel's basement conference room. The crowd exceeded the expectations of caucus organizers, as evidenced by a shortage of chairs at the site.

"It's nice to see people get off the couch and think their vote is worth something again," said Bruce Runyon, a mechanical custodian who supports Mitt Romney.

The large crowds were in spite of reports of people in King County receiving robocalls falsely claiming the caucuses have been cancelled. The state party said it was investigating the source.

Washington state will send 43 delegates to the national convention in Tampa in August, and the caucuses are the first in a multistep process to officially allocate 40 of those delegates to a candidate. Three additional are automatic delegates, and include the state party chairman.

In the overall race for delegates, Romney leads with 173, followed by Santorum with 87. Newt Gingrich has 33 delegates and Ron Paul has 20. None is yet close to the 1,144 delegates to the national convention required to secure the Republican nomination.

Several hundred people packed the cafeteria at Phantom Lake Elementary School Saturday, where small groups debated issues of immigration, state budgets, transportation, abortion and other issues. Supporters backed a range of candidates, but there was one prevailing theme: beat Obama.

Timothy Rietveld, 57, a bank credit officer, said he voted for Romney, though "my heart is for Santorum."

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