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Originally published Saturday, March 3, 2012 at 10:16 AM

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GOP voters in Wash. caucus on presidential choices

Republicans gathered in homes, churches and town halls across the state Saturday for Washington's GOP presidential caucuses, the first meaningful party contests in recent memory.

Associated Press

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OLYMPIA, Wash. —

Republicans gathered in homes, churches and town halls across the state Saturday for Washington's GOP presidential caucuses, the first meaningful party contests in recent memory.

While the caucuses are a nonbinding contest, state Republicans say it could create momentum for the four candidates on their last stop before Super Tuesday, where voting takes place in 10 states.

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have all visited the state in recent weeks, some twice.

"All of a sudden we're important and the center of attention," said state Republican chairman Kirby Wilbur. "We're just excited to see people excited."

In the liberal stronghold of Seattle, a crowd of more than 100 gathered at the Labor Temple in the Belltown neighborhood. High school senior Cole Thomas said he was supporting Paul because of his pledges to bring troops back home from overseas, and because he agrees with his Libertarian stances on things like drug policy and other issues.

"I'm big on small government," the 18-year-old said.

The Washington caucuses will run just two hours, ending at noon. Results from the straw poll vote on which candidate caucus-goers want to see take on President Barack Obama are expected to be released early evening.

The Washington GOP said early Saturday there had been reports of people in King County receiving robocalls falsely claiming the caucuses have been cancelled. The party says it's investigating the source.

"We're not sure exactly what's going on," party spokesman Josh Amato said. "We just wanted to make sure to tell people that it wasn't true."

In the overall race for delegates, Romney leads with 173, followed by Santorum with 87. Newt Gingrich has 33 delegates and Ron Paul has 20. None is yet close the 1,144 delegates to the national convention required to secure the Republican nomination.

There are about 6,700 precincts in Washington, and Republicans have predicted up to 60,000 participants across the state on Saturday. Washington state will send 43 delegates to the national convention in Tampa in August, and the caucuses are the first in a multistep process to officially allocate 40 of those delegates to a candidate. Three additional are automatic delegates, and include the state party chairman.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, a Republican from Walla Walla, endorsed Romney about a month ago. He said he hasn't liked the primary process so far, and said it has been akin to "eating our own."

"I do think it makes a stronger candidate," he said, but added that he's ready for it to be over so that the party could "start coalescing."

This is the first year since 2004 that Republicans won't use a presidential preferential primary in addition to the caucuses. The primary was canceled this year for budgetary reasons, as was the one in 2004.

Up 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.

Four years ago, nearly 530,000 Washingtonians voted in the state's GOP presidential primary that took place a few weeks after the caucuses, which were reported at the time to have 60,000 attendees.

Republican John McCain won the caucuses, but just barely. He got 25.3 percent of the vote, just ahead of Huckabee's 23.2 percent and Paul's 21.5 percent. In the primary that was conducted a few weeks later, McCain had nearly 50 percent of the vote, compared to Huckabee's 24 percent, and Paul's 8 percent.

Previously, Republicans split delegate allocation evenly between the primary and caucuses, but this year they will solely use the caucuses.

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Online:

Washington State Republican Party: http://wsrp.org

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