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Originally published February 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 10, 2008 at 3:16 AM

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Obama beats Clinton 2-1; McCain edges Huckabee

Sen. Barack Obama easily won Washington's Democratic caucuses Saturday, besting rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as overflow crowds embraced...

Seattle Times chief political reporter

Sen. Barack Obama easily won Washington's Democratic caucuses Saturday, besting rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as overflow crowds embraced Obama's message of hope and rejected the notion that the freshman senator wasn't ready to be president.

"You got to believe, don't you?" said Bev Grace, an 83-year-old Obama supporter in Vancouver. Grace said she was raised as a Republican and her husband and son are veterans. But she's had enough of war and liked Obama's opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq.

The state Republican Party said Sen. John McCain narrowly beat his GOP rivals, but results showed a surprising lack of consensus about whom party members want to be their nominee.

McCain, whom many are calling the party's presumptive nominee, had 26 percent of precinct delegates, compared with 24 percent for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and 21 percent for Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who dropped out of the race last week, had 17 percent.

"It just shows how wide open the race is in Washington," said state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser. "I think you can make the case for all the candidates."

There's nothing wide open about the Democratic race here.

The state Democratic Party said Obama won more than two-thirds of the precinct delegates. His support came from all across the state. Many of the people who came out for him Saturday said they had never participated in a caucus before.

The party showed Clinton winning in only one county, Douglas, in Eastern Washington.

Washington has 78 Democratic delegates at stake. The state GOP will award 18 delegates based on the caucus results and 19 based on the Feb. 19 presidential primary.

Neither party expected to have a final accounting Saturday of how those delegates will be allocated.

Obama appealed across all demographics. He did well among Latino voters, whom he has not always been able to win to his side. At Toppenish High School in the Yakima Valley, a multiethnic group of about 200 Democrats backed Obama over Clinton by a 3-2 ratio.

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Some there worried that nominating Clinton could result in a backlash among conservatives and independents.

"If we choose Hillary Rodham Clinton, we have an issue with the independent vote," said Fred Lopez, a 51-year-old orchard foreman from Toppenish. "We don't want to let go of the independent vote that is on Obama's side right now."

In parallel campaign swings in Seattle last week, Obama talked up his theme of hope and Clinton discounted it, saying experience and toughness mattered more. Clinton also worked to lower expectations for her performance here since Obama has done better in states with caucuses such as Washington, while Clinton has had better luck with primaries.

"I think Washington is tired of the message of fear," said Gov. Christine Gregoire, who endorsed Obama last week. "Now let's get back to how we really feel as Americans, and we're hopeful. That's what we're all about."

Democrats saw huge lines and overflowing rooms when they tried to open the caucuses at 1 p.m. But they reported little rancor as participants debated.

Between 750 and 1,000 people crammed into the cafeteria, library and hallways at Wedgwood Elementary School in northeast Seattle. In the cafeteria, Jocelyn Cooper, 28, and her live-in boyfriend, Jesse Sankey, 29, showed that intraparty divisions happen even under the same roof.

Sankey backed Clinton, Cooper backed Obama. They had a friendly debate while sitting next to each other on a bench:

Sankey: "Hillary will get more done in the short run. Obama's got good vision, but ... "

Cooper: "That's all you need, though. He'll just be one of 1,000 people running the country, and the people around him will feel that energy."

Sankey: "But Hillary's more likely to win against McCain. She's got the corporations."

Cooper: "Just because she accepted their money?"

Sankey: "You've got to accept their money."

Cooper: "You don't have to sell your soul."

Sankey: "It's not selling your soul!"

In a hallway at the school, Sanford Pitler, 61, an attorney, made his plea for Obama.

"We should be leading the world," he said. "We could be a beacon of light. I love our country -- the country we can be. Obama articulates all that. He'll show us how to become that country again. That's why we need him to be our president."

Applause rose from the 100 or so in his precinct. But there was also hearty applause for a man who spoke for Clinton.

"I respect Obama, but we need to be careful," the man said. "He's inspirational and hopeful, but can he do the job? We shouldn't be dazzled by dazzleness."

"Dazzleness" could be the word of the day, though.

In White Center, south of Seattle, Felicia Uhden voted for Obama after her first choice, John Edwards, dropped out of the race.

"Every time I hear Barack Obama speak, I'm so moved," she said at the caucus at White Center Heights Elementary.

On Seattle's Capitol Hill, about 1,700 people -- more than twice what organizers expected -- jammed into Seattle Central Community College, which hosted 19 precinct caucuses, with one drawing as many as 201 people.

Democrats there, in one of the state's most liberal areas, went heavily for Obama.

Breathing room was scarce in one classroom set up to hold eight caucuses. A half-hour before caucuses were to start, several hundred people jammed inside and dozens more pressed in from the hallway, forcing organizers to move four groups to other areas around the building.

"I'm so excited that Bush is going to be out of office soon," said Laura Cooper, 40, a Seattle architect attending her first caucus. She backs Obama: "I know it's a cliché, but I think he would be more unifying."

Democrats reported record turnout all around the state. There were 18,220 people at caucuses in Seattle's 36th Legislative District. That's up from 7,529 four years ago.

Some Clinton supporters appeared frustrated by their minority status. But they were eager to defend their candidate.

"She has a very high moral character, and the morals in this nation have gone down," said Jale Hansen, a retired Vancouver teacher who was born in Turkey. "We need her in the White House. She is a very decent person."

In White Center, 78-year-old Charlotte McFail attended her first caucus. She backed Clinton and even had some nice things to say about Obama.

"He's perfectly charming and delightful to look at, which certainly doesn't hurt," McFail said. "I just wish he could peel off some of that charm and answer some questions."

And don't talk to McFail about Obama's big youth following. "The young are just like they're on a kite ride," McFail said. "I have a son who thinks [Obama] is a water walker."

There's no doubt that Obama's ascendancy had special meaning for some.

Chris Millard, one of the few African Americans at his White Center caucus, said afterward that he was heartened to see a roomful of mostly white people backing Obama. "I can finally vote for somebody that looks like me and thinks like me," Millard said.

Seattle Times staff reporters Ralph Thomas, Haley Edwards, Jack Broom, Diane Brooks and Jim Brunner contributed to this story.

David Postman: 360-236-8267 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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