Romney wins Washington GOP caucus straw poll

By Rachel La Corte

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 4 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Republicans gather at West Valley Junior High School in Yakima, Wash. to caucus and start building a county platform on Saturday, Mar. 3, 2012. 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.

Yakima Herald-Republic, Sara Gettys, Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Mitt Romney won Washington state's presidential caucus straw poll Saturday, capturing a strong portion of the vote of thousands of Republicans who crowded caucuses around the state.

With 100 percent of the precinct votes counted Saturday night, Romney had 38 percent of the vote, followed by Ron Paul with 25 percent. Rick Santorum was close behind with 24 percent and Newt Gingrich had 10 percent of the vote. Three percent were uncommitted.

Republicans had predicted up to 60,000 people attending the caucuses. The results released Saturday were based 50,764 votes counted from almost all of the state's 39 counties. Romney won 25 of the counties and was leading in King, but final totals for King weren't immediately available. Paul won nine, and Santorum won four.

Romney said in a statement that the state's voters "have sent a signal that they do not want a Washington insider in the White House."

After the results came in, Paul addressed a lively crowd of supporters at a party along Seattle's waterfront.

"The good news is we're doing very well in getting delegates," he said. "We do know that the strategy of building up delegates is sound."

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.

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.

Earlier in the day, precincts drew so many people that many locations were standing-room-only and 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."

The four presidential candidates vying to take on President Barack Obama have all visited the state in recent weeks, some twice. Paul was the only one still in the state on Saturday, though he lost at a precinct he had visited Saturday morning, coming in third behind Romney and Santorum.

Even though Washington state has voted exclusively Democratic in presidential elections since backing Ronald Reagan in 1984, state Republican chairman Kirby Wilbur said the strong turnout was a signal that "Democrats should be concerned."

"We will not lack for energy or enthusiasm, at least on our side," he said.

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 Romney.

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