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."
"I picked Santorum early as my dark horse, but I think at this point that Romney is the most electable, and the primary goal is to beat Obama," said the Bellevue resident.
At a junior high school cafeteria in Yakima, east of the Cascade Range in an agricultural region surrounded by thousands of acres of fruit trees, hops, grapes and other crops, hundreds turned out.
Before the discussion opened, Emma Fishbeck, 84, said she has already decided to vote for Gingrich.
"He knows from experience — he's not testing the waters," she said.
This is the first year since 2004 that Republicans won't use a presidential preferential primary in addition to the caucuses. The primary was canceled this year for budgetary reasons, as was the one in 2004.
Up until 1992, the state relied solely on caucuses. But after 1988, when backers of television evangelist Pat Robertson swamped the meetings and ultimately took the nation's largest Robertson delegation to the GOP convention in New Orleans, the Legislature quickly moved to create a presidential primary.
Four years ago, nearly 530,000 Washingtonians voted in the state's GOP presidential primary that took place a few weeks after the caucuses. Republicans report that turnout to the caucuses in 2008 was between 13,000 and 14,000, significantly smaller than what is expected this year.
Republican John McCain won the caucuses, but just barely. He got 25.3 percent of the vote, just ahead of Huckabee's 23.2 percent and Paul's 21.5 percent. In the primary that was conducted a few weeks later, McCain had nearly 50 percent of the vote, compared to Huckabee's 24 percent, and Paul's 8 percent.
Previously, Republicans split delegate allocation evenly between the primary and caucuses, but this year they will solely use the caucuses.
Associated Press Writers contributing to this report were Chris Grygiel in Seattle, Phuong Le in Bellevue, Shannon Dininny in Yakima, and Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia.
Washington State Republican Party: http://wsrp.org