The fight to emerge as the Republican challenger to Barack Obama turns next to Washington state _ a Democratic bastion known not just for majestic mountain ranges and good coffee, but also for independent-minded voters.
This Pacific Northwest state has a non-conformist streak and a rule that any registered voter can participate in the Republican contest, giving libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul hope that he can engineer his first victory of the nomination race. But even though he had a strong showing here four years ago and is investing heavily in the state, Paul faces stiff challenges in Saturday's statewide caucuses from GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
By Saturday, all four will have visited the state at least once, and some twice.
At first glance, Washington _ a state that just legalized gay marriage and has a labor-union, blue-collar history _ would seem ill-fitting for Republicans to come courting voters. It's voted exclusively Democratic in presidential elections since backing Ronald Reagan and has elected only Democratic governors for nearly 30 years. Its governor and two senators all are Democratic women, and most of its House members are Democrats. Yet Republicans have held the secretary of state's office since the 1960s, illustrating the state's proclivity for doing its own thing.
"There is a real independent streak that runs through here," said independent pollster Stuart Elway, noting that while voting patterns lean Democratic, his polling has regularly showed that 45 percent of the population identifies as "independent," compared to 35 percent who say they're Democrats and 25 percent who identify as Republicans.
There are a series of factors that explain the wooing by Republican candidates.
The GOP race is now a drawn-out hunt for delegates as well as a contest in which candidates try to build momentum by racking up a series of victories state by state to force opponents from the race. At stake are 40 delegates to the Republican national nominating convention later this summer, a cache second only to Florida's 50 in contests thus far. Registered voters of all political stripes can participate in the caucuses, but they must sign an affidavit identifying themselves as Republican and promising not to participate in a caucus for another party.
There's also another possible explanation for the candidates competing for caucuses in which only about 50,000 people are expected attend, according to one Republican official's estimate.
"It's a psychological boost going into Super Tuesday if one candidate dominates or stands out," state GOP chairman Kirby Wilbur said. That may be particularly true in a contest as volatile as this, with Romney, Santorum and Gingrich all having won previous contests.
Washington's contest is the last before 10 states vote Tuesday, offering a total of 419 delegates. (Wyoming Republicans also will hold county conventions from Tuesday through March 10, with 12 delegates to the party's national convention up for grabs.)
So it's little wonder, then, why Paul, desperate for his first win, started running a TV ad in the state attacking his opponents and plans to return to hold a rally Friday night in Seattle. Paul is the only candidate on the air, having spent roughly $40,000 to run ads on cable channels in the state. A pro-Gingrich super PAC has spent only a fraction of that.
Santorum, who visited the state in February, was back Thursday for rallies in the more conservative eastern region, while Romney, who has been working to build support from establishment Republicans here and rolled out dozens of local endorsements, planned to hit a fundraiser in Washington state the same day.
Their visits come on the heels of one by Gingrich last week.
Four years ago, Republican John McCain won the GOP caucuses, but just barely. He got 25 percent of the vote, just ahead of Mike Huckabee's 23 percent and Paul's 21.5 percent. In the primary that was conducted a few weeks later and reached significantly more Republican voters, McCain had nearly 50 percent of the vote, compared to Huckabee's 24 percent, and Paul's 8 percent.
This is the first year since 2004 that Republicans won't hold a presidential preferential primary in addition to the caucuses. The primary was cancelled this year for budgetary reasons, as was the one in 2004.
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.
Washington State Republican Party: http://wsrp.org
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