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Romney wins Washington straw poll

Mitt Romney gained a symbolic victory in Washington Saturday, pulling down the most votes cast at the state’s Republican precinct caucuses.

Symbolic in the sense that he can claim another win heading into next week’s “Super Tuesday” contests.

Symbolic in the sense that he captured a plurality, but nowhere near a majority of votes in the statewide poll. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum each had about a fourth of the votes statewide.

In Spokane County, the final tallies were even closer: Romney 1,521: Santorum 1,511 and Paul 1,340. Paul wound up on top in close races in Pend Oreille, Stevens, Ferry and Whitman counties. Santorum edged to the top in Lincoln County.

Symbolic in the sense that he didn’t win any delegates needed for the GOP presidential nomination. The straw poll is an indication of support the candidates have among Republicans attending caucuses around the state, but it’s non-binding.

But a win is a win, as any politician will tell you, and Romney had a 10-point lead over Paul and Santorum, late Saturday night as the statewide count continued. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was a distant fourth, statewide and in Eastern Washington counties.

“We’re just building momentum for Mitt Romney’s candidacy. They believe he’s the one that can win the presidency,” said an elated Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The Spokane congresswoman, who serves as state chairwoman for the Romney campaign, attended her local precinct caucus and thought it was “buzzing with enthusiasm.”

The caucuses, held throughout the state in school auditoriums, community centers, church halls and living rooms, drew a record attendance, Kirby Wilbur, state Republican chairman, said. He estimated some 50,000 people came to the meetings, almost four times the 14,000 that attended in 2008.

That had been the best caucus turnout on record, although there may have been more people who went to the caucuses in 1980, during the contest between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, even than this year, Wilbur said. But party records don’t go back that far.

This year’s caucuses were helped by several factors. First, the race is still up for grabs; in some past years, the nominee was either already chosen or the front-runner had the nomination all but sewn up.

Second, all four candidates made stops in Washington. That’s never happened for a Republican caucus, Wilbur said.

Paul made two trips to Spokane, including one on Friday, Santorum was in the Spokane Valley on Thursday and North Idaho in February. Romney didn’t make a stop in Eastern Washington, but he did visit Bellevue this week.

Third, the Washington caucus got unusual attention from local and national news media. All of that helped build interest and excitement, Wilbur said.

Finally, the state cancelled its presidential primary, which had been used to award at least some delegates in previous elections. If Republicans wanted to have a say in the selection of a nominee, they had to go to a caucus.

Paul may have been the most organized, building on support he had in the 2008 election when he finished well around the state and his supporters took over the Spokane County GOP convention. But Romney may have experienced a surge in support that coincided with the growing excitement and attention.

McMorris Rodgers said she hopes the party can avoid some of the divisions that developed four years ago between the Paul supporters and the coalition of activists who linked up after starting out for John McCain, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee.

“I hope that we can start unifying behind our nominee and start building that enthusiasm,” she said. “I did not sense some of the division of four years ago.”

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