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McCain slides to primary win

Sen. John McCain coasted to victory in Washington’s complicated presidential primary Tuesday, picking up about half the Republican votes – and more than twice as many as his nearest rivals.

McCain seems poised to take the bulk of the Washington’s 19 delegates up for grabs in Tuesday’s GOP contest, which allots delegates among the statewide and congressional districts. The results were in sharp contrast to the Feb. 9 precinct caucuses, where the Arizona senator finished on top of a close three-way race with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, of Texas.

In Tuesday’s primary, Huckabee was battling former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for second, and Paul was a distant fourth.

Chris Fidler, a spokesman for the McCain campaign in Washington, said he believed the primary was “more reflective of the electorate.”

“Sen. McCain is definitely more popular than the caucuses would indicate,” Fidler said.

In the Democratic primary, which was reduced to a popularity contest because no convention delegates were at stake, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama had a narrow lead over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. But that contest, too, was in contrast to the Feb. 9 precinct caucuses, where Obama’s delegates outnumbered Clinton’s by about 2-to-1.

Both Democratic candidates mostly ignored the primary after making a push for supporters in the caucuses.

Obama had concentrated his efforts for Tuesday on Wisconsin, which had a primary that was awarding delegates, spokeswoman Amy Brundage said. The campaign couldn’t talk about the Washington results because they were too preliminary, she added, and repeated a refrain the campaign had used all week: “We focused on the contest that counted” – the precinct caucuses.

Obama won the Wisconsin primary handily.

Clinton had said during a visit to Spokane on Feb. 8 that she prefers primaries to caucuses because they have broader participation. The Clinton campaign could not be reached Tuesday night for comment on the Washington primary results, which had her slightly ahead in Spokane County.

Although state law calls for a presidential primary, state officials from both parties are strong supporters of the caucus system. Republicans agreed to split their delegates between the two systems this year, but Democrats said they would continue to use only the caucuses to determine delegates who will go to the national convention this summer to select the party’s presidential nominee.

Republicans set up a system that will award some delegates based on the overall winner in the state primary, and two delegates from each of the state’s nine congressional districts, based on results in that district.

Determinations on all delegates could take days, but McCain clearly has the edge, having won in all 39 of the state’s counties. He had 45 percent of the vote in Spokane County.

“It looks like we get the lion’s share,” Fidler said late Tuesday in a phone interview as an election watch party was wrapping up in downtown Seattle.

Huckabee and Romney were each picking up about 21 percent of the vote throughout the evening. Huckabee has said he will remain in the race until McCain has the delegates necessary to secure the nomination, but Romney dropped out Feb. 7.

Most of Washington votes by mail, so Romney’s withdrawal came more than a week after the ballots arrived in mailboxes. Some were marked and mailed back while Romney was still in the race.

Paul, a Texas congressman who made a stop in Spokane on Jan. 31, saw the biggest drop between the precinct caucuses and the primary. He finished third overall in the state caucuses, less than 4 percentage points behind McCain and 2 percentage points behind Huckabee in the tally of delegates elected to county conventions. He also finished first in Spokane and several other Eastern Washington counties, landing nearly half of those counties’ delegates chosen in precinct caucuses.

But in the primary, he was trailing badly, with the support of 11 percent of the vote in Spokane County and 7 percent statewide.

Rob Chase, of Liberty Lake, a former Libertarian candidate for Congress who is active in the local Paul campaign, attributed the change in results to the change in the type of participants in each system.

“I think people that go to the caucuses are a lot better informed,” Chase said. “Most people feel they have a duty to vote but don’t look past what’s being stated by the news media.”

Paul supporters also had to constantly overcome a mantra from other Republicans as well as political analysts, Chase added. “They couldn’t mention his name without saying, ‘But he can’t win.’ “

Paul delegates elected to the county convention will continue to work to change the party from within, he said. “We want to transform the Republican Party back to the Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan Party.”

For McCain, the task will be to reach out to the Paul, Huckabee and Romney supporters, as well as independents in the state, Fidler said.

One sobering statistic for Republicans: Even though Democratic candidates ignored the primary and the party was not counting the primary results, more Democratic ballots than Republican ballots were cast.

By late Tuesday, ballots from Democrats were running about 100,000 ahead of Republican ballots statewide.