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Originally published March 3, 2012 at 9:51 AM | Page modified March 5, 2012 at 2:08 PM

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Big win in state propels Romney into Super Tuesday

Mitt Romney posted a double-digit win in Washington's Republican presidential straw poll Saturday.

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Mitt Romney shook off his Republican rivals to win Washington's Republican caucuses Saturday, giving the GOP front-runner an air of increasing momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

With all precincts reporting late Saturday night, Romney collected 38 percent of the vote in the presidential straw poll, with Ron Paul edging out Rick Santorum for second place with about 25 percent. Newt Gingrich trailed at 10 percent.

It was Romney's fifth win in a row, coming after victories in Michigan, Arizona, Maine and Wyoming.

In a statement, Romney thanked Washington voters, saying they had "sent a signal that they do not want a Washington insider in the White House." Instead, the former Massachusetts governor said, "they want a conservative businessman who understands the private sector and knows how to get the federal government out of the way so the economy can once again grow vigorously."

Kirby Wilbur, the chairman of the state Republican Party, saw Romney's strong numbers as a sign of the national party finally coalescing around him.

"I think it's possible the party is starting to gel," he said.

"He's not Barack Obama, and he has a vision for our country," Wilbur said. "It's taken him a long time to make that sale, but maybe he's been able to make it."

Paul, the only candidate to remain in the state for the results, told cheering supporters in Seattle that he'd finished "a good second place."

But Paul added: "the good news is we're doing very well in getting delegates."

The straw-poll results on Saturday do not determine which candidate will win Washington's 43 delegates to the Republican National Convention. The 14,000 delegates elected at the precinct caucuses will be pared down at subsequent county and legislative-district conventions.

The 43 national delegates will only be bound to a candidate at the state GOP convention in June.

Based on the straw-poll vote count, Romney's win was worth at least 12 of the 40 delegates at stake, according to an Associated Press projection. (Washington's final three delegates consist of Wilbur and two other top party officials and are not determined by delegate elections.)

Paul and Santorum each won at least three. The rest remained unallocated, pending final returns.

That brought Romney's national delegate total to 185 delegates, according to an Associated Press count that includes party officials who will vote on the selection of a nominee but are not selected at primaries or caucuses. Santorum had 90, Gingrich 33 and Paul 23. It takes 1,144 delegates to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention this summer in Tampa and challenge President Barack Obama in the fall.

With the state's usual presidential primary canceled amid budget cuts this year, the caucuses — which are paid for and run by the Republicans — were the only chance for voters to weigh in on who will be the GOP's nominee.

An estimated 50,000 people participated in the caucuses, according to state GOP officials. That's just 1.6 percent of the state's 3.7 million registered voters.

Still, many locations were crowded Saturday, with some schools and churches filled with standing-room-only crowds in the morning.

It did not always go smoothly.

In Kennewick, hundreds of people were turned away from an overstuffed caucus site at the Kennewick Convention Center, according to the Tri-City Herald. Local party officials apologized.

Wilbur said those turned away had been late and that the results of those caucuses would stand. But some who spoke with the media challenged that, saying they showed up an hour early only to find out they couldn't get inside.

In the Seattle area, many caucus locations were crowded with zealous Paul supporters, many of whom didn't identify with the Republican Party outside of the Texas congressman.

Attending his first caucus at the Labor Temple in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, Dillon Smith, 31, vowed to write in Paul's name no matter who is on the ballot in November.

"I would rather die than vote for any of the other candidates," said Smith, because the country needs someone who will "basically slit the throat of the federal government."

Five neighbors who showed up from his precinct also supported Paul and voted 6-0 to elect Smith as a delegate to an upcoming legislative-district convention.

As he stood in line to turn in his ballot, Smith unfurled a black "Don't tread on me" flag.

But in the end, Romney, who had lined up endorsements from a long list of state Republican officials, was able to convince people he was best positioned to beat Obama.

He won 26 of the state's 39 counties, including convincing margins in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Paul won nine counties; Santorum won four.

Romney ran strong among Republicans in the Eastside suburbs, at places like Discovery Middle School in Sammamish, where a standing-room-only crowd had organizers scrambling to bring in more chairs.

"They're lined up clear onto the sidewalk — wow!" said Nadine Gulit, a precinct committee officer in Issaquah.

Jeff McMorris, a caucus organizer, said turnout appeared to be "at least double" numbers in the 2008 presidential caucus, when an estimated 12,000 attended statewide.

Doug and Mary Lou Lockard, both 63, of Sammamish supported Mitt Romney in their first caucus at the middle school.

"We just wanted to make sure we support our candidate because it's very important this year — especially in our state," Doug Lockard said.

The couple wore matching red coats with the logo of their home-based children's toy-box business, Treasure Tower.

Mary Lou Lockard cited Romney's management of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "I really like the way he was able to take all the divisiveness ... and get people to work together," she said.

The Lockards said they are worried about the future of the their nine children — one is unemployed and another struggled to find work — saying President Obama hasn't done enough to turn around a dismal economy.

"I'm looking for change I can believe in now," Doug said with a smile, recalling Obama's 2008 campaign slogan.

In a last-minute twist, the King County Republican Party warned Saturday morning of robo-calls to voters falsely claiming that the caucuses had been delayed a week. It was not immediately known how widespread the calls were nor who was responsible for them.

While overshadowed by the coming Super Tuesday contests — in which 10 states will hold primaries or elections — Washington's caucuses drew more attention than usual, with all four candidates visiting the state in recent weeks.

Romney spent the least time here, flying in for a Thursday fundraiser and speaking Friday morning at a brief public event before flying to the crucial Super Tuesday battleground of Ohio.

Paul drew hundreds of people at a rally in Seattle on Friday night, drawing loud cheers with his calls to slash government, eliminate the Federal Reserve and end U.S. military actions abroad.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator, and Gingrich, a former House speaker, drew hundreds at earlier rallies, but suffered from relatively paltry campaign organizations in the state.

"This absolutely builds the momentum for Super Tuesday," said U.S. Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, state chair of Romney for President. "We worked very hard and put together a grass-roots organization in every congressional district and every county."

Seattle Times staff reporters Emily Heffter, Brian M. Rosenthal, Keith Ervin, Katherine Long, Jonathan Martin, Lark Turner and Jack Broom contributed to this story.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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