SEATTLE – With the Republican Party’s seesaw presidential contest showing few signs of ending soon, Washington’s upcoming caucuses may be shaping up as a coveted prize.
At least three of the four remaining Republican contenders have begun to organize here in advance of the March 3 caucuses.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas have laid the most groundwork.
But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has recruited an influential evangelical leader who could help him turn out social conservatives.
Washington’s appeal stems from the state’s caucuses falling just days before Super Tuesday, March 6, when 10 states hold nominating contests.
“Given the nature of the race so far, I think we’re going to be more important than we have been in years, if not decades,” said state Republican Chairman Kirby Wilbur.
In many previous presidential contests, the party nominations have been all but wrapped up by the time Washington voted.
That wasn’t the case for the Democrats four years ago, when Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were still battling for the nomination when the state’s caucuses rolled round. On the GOP side, Sen. John McCain was the overwhelming front-runner by the time of the February 2008 caucuses and primary election.
Washington has held both caucuses and a presidential primary in the past, but the state Legislature canceled the primary this year to save money.
Washington will send 43 delegates to the Republican National Convention, the most from any state with caucuses or primaries between Florida’s hotly contested primary this Tuesday and Super Tuesday.
Those delegates won’t be bound at the caucuses – that won’t occur until the state GOP convention in June – but the caucus straw-poll results will draw national attention.
Most of the remaining GOP presidential candidates are already organizing here.
Romney has big-money ties to the local business establishment. He visited the state twice last year for private fundraisers and has raised $346,000 from Washington donors.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is heading Romney’s state campaign. She said Romney’s executive experience gives him the edge when it comes to reviving the economy.
“I also think he’s the most electable of the Republican candidates,” she said, echoing fears of many GOP leaders about whether Gingrich or others would be able to defeat Obama.
McMorris Rodgers said the state campaign is expecting visits from Romney and members of his family in the coming weeks.
The campaign, which is being informally run by her brother, Jeff McMorris, is organizing in “every corner of the state” to turn out the caucus vote, McMorris Rodgers said.
It is Paul, however, who may have the deepest grassroots organization. Paul, who has not won in any state, has said he’s focusing his campaign on caucus states such as Washington.
Caucuses require participants to meet in person to elect delegates and pick a presidential favorite in a straw poll. The events can take much of a day and tend to draw far lower turnouts than primaries.
Paul’s supporters have been organizing for months. He is the only candidate with a campaign office here, in Bellevue.
Paul campaign spokesman Gary Howard said in an email the campaign has paid staffers and a strong core of volunteers, with “a presence in every county in Washington.”
Part of the Paul strategy is to take over vacant Republican precinct committee officer, or PCO, positions. That’s because PCOs automatically become delegates to county or legislative-district GOP conventions, where they can try to get elected as delegates to the state convention.
A local Paul campaign memo urged Paul volunteers to consider concealing their support for him when volunteering as PCOs.
And for those who become PCOs, the memo suggested organizing caucuses in private homes, avoiding libraries or schools “where the establishment will be in full force and try to control everything.”
Many of Paul’s supporters are not Republicans, hence the tension between party leaders and his campaign.
Washington’s caucus rules allow any registered voters to participate in their precinct’s GOP caucuses, though participants must sign statements saying they won’t also go to another party’s caucuses.
Paul has raised more than $174,000 from Washington donors.
Gingrich’s campaign, meanwhile, has not opened an office or developed any visible ground campaign here. He’s raised about $15,000 from state donors.
But Gingrich has recruited one influential ally who could help him turn out the caucus vote in the coming weeks, assuming he remains in the race.
The Rev. Joe Fuiten, pastor of the Cedar Park Church in Bothell, has endorsed Gingrich and joined his national Faith Leaders Coalition.
Fuiten is a longtime leader among politically active evangelical Christians.
He said he’s been impressed with Gingrich since meeting him in 2006.
Fuiten said Gingrich’s much-publicized personal foibles shouldn’t cost him evangelical support.
“The Bible says all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” Fuiten said. “But we also preach redemption.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, has no apparent organization in Washington and has raised $1,150 from local donors. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats will also hold caucuses this year on April 15, though no drama is expected as the party gears up to support Obama for re-election.