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Washington state GOP caucuses might be most influential in decades

By Bob Young, The Seattle Times –

SEATTLE — Washington state may have an unusually important voice in deciding Barack Obama’s opponent.

The state’s GOP presidential caucuses, along with its straw poll, occur Saturday morning. Anyone can go, as long as he’s registered to vote and says he considers himself a Republican.

In theory, this year’s caucus is more influential than any in a long time. “More than any in my lifetime,” said state party Chairman Kirby Wilbur, “and I think I went to my first in 1974.”

It’s rare at this time of year, this deep into the presidential contest, that the Republican race is still competitive, still a drama. Yet the 2012 GOP primary appears more fluid than Snoqualmie Falls. Three of the four candidates — Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum — have recently visited the state; Mitt Romney is scheduled to campaign in Washington state Thursday.

Upping the stakes is the disappearance of the presidential primary, scrapped in budget cuts. The primary used to allocate half of Washington’s GOP delegates who nominate a candidate at the Republican National Convention.

With no primary, 40 of 43 delegates will be picked through the local caucus-and-convention process that begins Saturday. (Wilbur and two other party officials are automatic delegates.) Caucuses may be better attended and more lively than past ho-hum sessions that endorsed candidates who’d already been all-but-anointed nominees.

And with no primary, far fewer voters will have a say about the state’s preferred presidential candidate. Four years ago, 530,000 Washingtonians voted in the state’s GOP presidential primary; this year, state officials are projecting up to 60,000 caucus-goers.

There’s a twist, though: Saturday’s caucus is the least important of the three-step process, says former state chairman Chris Vance.

“Nobody wins anything March 3rd,” Vance said about the day’s straw poll. While it can boost a campaign’s morale, “The straw poll plays no part in deciding who’s getting delegates from Washington state,” he said.

And delegates are not bound to any candidate by Saturday’s caucus. They’re free to maneuver and change their loyalty until the state convention in early June.

Saturday’s action unfolds like this:

Each of the state’s 6,700 precincts will elect from one to five delegates at caucuses scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Some precincts may meet in homes. Most, though, now hold “pooled” events at which multiple precincts gather in public places, such as schools.

Caucus-goers will first check in and sign a form saying they’re Republicans. They’ll also fill out a form listing priorities for the party platform and they’ll indicate their presidential preference for the straw poll.

Then they’ll congregate by precinct. Precinct-committee officers, the most grass roots of elected party officials, are automatically delegates and act as caucus chairs. Until voting for delegates starts at 10:30, caucus-goers may discuss presidential candidates and party platform issues.

In the past, voting has often been mundane, says caucus veteran Bob Brunjes of Snoqualmie. Sometimes becoming a delegate has just been a matter of showing up and being willing to sacrifice several Saturdays for the caucus-convention process. In other cases, it’s been about voting for a neighbor you liked, regardless of which presidential candidate he or she was supporting.

Sharp debate, arm-waving and arm-twisting have been rare. “It’s always been a pleasant experience, a get-together with your neighbors,” said Dollie Kosters of Woodinville, who’s been attending caucuses since 1980.

But because this year’s presidential race is still in play, Republicans are expecting a larger turnout and more passion. “I feel it’s going to be completely different,” Kosters said.

Brunjes expects to see verbose people trying to sell themselves and their candidates while more contemplative folks sit and listen. He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see different factions collaborating to shut out rivals.

“It could be that Santorum and Gingrich people get together and say, ‘We get four delegates in this precinct, you take two and we’ll take two, and we’ll block Romney and Paul,’ ” he said.

By 11:30 a.m., each precinct should have elected its delegates and an alternate for each one. By noon the caucusing must end, Wilbur says, or the results could be challenged.

If all positions are filled, Saturday is expected to produce 14,353 delegates. Wilbur is projecting 40,000 to 60,000 caucus-goers in all — a steep increase over the roughly 13,000 who attended four years ago.

The winnowing process starts in the six weeks after the caucuses, when each county holds a convention. King County, because of its unwieldy size, holds legislative-district meetings.

The purpose of the county and legislative-district conventions is to cut the field of delegates down to 1,500.

Then those delegates go to Tacoma May 30-June 2, where things could get quite dramatic, as the number of delegates is reduced to 40.

If the GOP presidential race continues on its current trajectory — with no clear winner emerging — then Washington state could become vital in June, when 43 national delegates, pledged to a specific candidate or candidates, will be determined.

“If no one has locked up a majority, we could see the surviving candidates come and work the floor of the Washington state convention,” Vance said. Wilbur said he couldn’t recall the last time that happened.

Wilbur vows to run a fair and firm process throughout. He is also confident the process will avoid past problems.

Four years ago, Wilbur’s predecessor, Luke Esser, announced straw-poll results four years ago before all the votes were counted, declaring John McCain the winner. That led runner-up Mike Huckabee to threaten a lawsuit.

While the results didn’t change, Esser later acknowledged that four counties had initially submitted wrong information.

Meanwhile, controversies have surfaced in caucus states such as Iowa and Maine this year over vote-counting and canceled caucuses.

Wilbur says the state party has imposed safeguards to protect the security and counting of the straw-poll votes, which will be recorded on triplicate hard copies. Precinct tallies will be passed on to county chairs, who at 3 p.m. will start relaying counts to state offices. Wilbur hopes to announce results by 6 p.m.

“I think we’ve minimized glitches,” he said.

And, Wilbur reminds campaigns there’s one way, above all, to prevent problems. “Turn out your people,” he said. “That’s how you win, by numbers. … You can influence the world if you think about it.”

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