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Originally published Tuesday, February 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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McCain still winner after caucus count

On a day of heated rhetoric over alleged irregularities in the Republican precinct caucuses over the weekend, former state GOP Chairman...

Seattle Times staff reporter

After a day of heated rhetoric over alleged irregularities in the state Republican precinct caucuses and continuing complaints from presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's campaign, state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser late Monday night released updated numbers -- and acknowledged four counties had submitted wrong information.

The updated numbers didn't change the results significantly. With 96 percent of the precincts reporting, Arizona Sen. John McCain won 25.6 percent of the delegates; former Arkansas governor Huckabee had 23.3 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul 21.4 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has dropped out of the race, 15.3 percent. Most of the rest were uncommitted.

In terms of numbers of delegates for the front-runners, that means McCain won 3,191 delegates; Huckabee 2,898. The numbers are based on the candidates preferred by the elected delegates.

Esser said he had briefed a lawyer from Huckabee's campaign who arrived in the state Monday, and a representative from McCain's campaign, on the figures.

Esser said four counties -- Snohomish, Benton, Grant and Jefferson -- had given the wrong numbers previously, reporting the preferences of all caucus attendees, not just the elected delegates.

"Clearly there was miscommunication," according to Esser. He said the party didn't realize the wrong numbers were given, likely because they came in incrementally. The state GOP now has corrected numbers for about 74 percent of Snohomish County's precincts; 100 percent corrected figures for Benton and Grant counties; and no correct numbers yet from Jefferson County, Esser said.

The numbers Esser released Monday night used the corrected information.

Four counties -- Snohomish, Jefferson, Douglas and Pierce -- have not yet reported the results from all their precincts.

Esser said he hoped the information he was relaying would blunt talk of a legal challenge by the Huckabee campaign, which had complained Esser had called the race too early in favor of McCain. Saturday's tally, which Esser announced with 87.2 percent of precincts reporting, had McCain winning 25.5 percent of the delegates; Huckabee 23.7 percent; Paul 20.6 percent, and Romney 16.5 percent. At that point, McCain was ahead of Huckabee by 242 delegates, with a sizable number left to count.

Esser said that by then, precincts had stopped reporting in for the night and his analysis made him confident that McCain's lead would hold. The party resumed counting on Sunday.

Amid the furor over the results, former GOP Chairman Chris Vance tried to put it all into some perspective: The numbers reporting who won or lost may not matter much in the long run.

Due to the way Republicans select their delegates, the results could bear little resemblance to the presidential preferences of the 40 Washington state delegates ultimately sent to the GOP national convention in September.

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"Nobody won or lost anything on Saturday," said Vance, now a public affairs consultant and McCain supporter. "But every other state had been able to report a 'winner,' so there was expected there would be a 'winner' in Washington state."

Here, the number of delegates elected at precinct caucuses means very little in terms of which candidate will ultimately get the most delegates heading into the national convention, he said. Delegates are "unbound free agents," who are not required to vote for one candidate over another. They can tell people whom they're supporting, but they can also change their minds, Vance said. Also, the roughly 16,700 delegates elected at Saturday's precinct caucuses will be winnowed down at legislative district caucuses and county conventions. Those remaining will go to the state convention, where only 18 of them will be chosen -- two from each of the state's nine Congressional districts -- to go on to the national convention.

And that only counts for a portion of Washington's national delegates. Nineteen others will be allocated based on the state primary election on Feb. 19. The three remaining positions are "automatic" delegates -- the state party chairman and two national-committee members.

"What happens before now and the state convention -- there's no way to know," Vance said. "The Huckabee campaign either doesn't understand that, which I doubt, or they're just trying to use this to build up sympathy for poor Mike Huckabee who's being persecuted by the Republican establishment in Washington state."

James P. Pinkerton, a Huckabee spokesman, said earlier Monday that Esser's Saturday announcement did have an impact. It "put a real stopper in our buzz. People think you have buzz, you go way up in the polls."

And Alice Stewart, a Huckabee campaign spokeswoman, said their fight was important because it's "about people who went to the caucuses -- making sure their voices are heard."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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