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Originally published March 30, 2012 at 7:50 PM | Page modified March 30, 2012 at 9:25 PM

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'A house divided': Santorum strategy here worries supporters

Although Mitt Romney won Washington state's GOP straw poll earlier this month, Rick Santorum's campaign is teaming up with Ron Paul supporters in an effort to deny Romney delegates.

Seattle Times staff

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Mitt Romney won the straw poll at Washington's precinct caucuses earlier this month, but the fight over who will claim the state's 43 delegates to the Republican national convention is ongoing.

The latest twist: Rick Santorum's campaign is teaming up with Ron Paul supporters in an effort to deny Romney delegates, apparently at the direction of Santorum himself.

The strategy has alarmed some top GOP officials who fear it will crack party unity and lead to a nasty scene at the state convention in a couple of months. It has also angered some grass-roots Santorum supporters.

In an email to Santorum supporters, state volunteer coordinator Graden Neal said the presidential candidate and former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania joined a conference call with Washington state campaign leaders on Wednesday.

"And the Senator didn't mince words," Neal wrote. "In order for us to win the nomination in Tampa in August, we must deny Romney delegates to that convention. If ... Romney receives 1,144 delegates before the national convention, it is all over for our campaign. That is the reason why the Senator himself directed us to coalition with the Ron Paul delegates to deny Romney any state delegates."

Neal confirmed the message in a phone interview Friday, and acknowledged the effort has split Santorum's supporters here. Neal said the alliance is showing a measure of success, but acknowledged some Santorum backers are not happy with the strategy.

"We are a house divided," he said.

The showdown should be evident this weekend when nine counties — including Snohomish and Clark — hold conventions to elect delegates to the state GOP convention, where the national delegates will be picked in June.

Although Romney won the state Republican caucus straw poll March 3, the state's delegates to the national convention won't be committed to a specific candidate until the state GOP gathering, which begins May 31.

Paul finished second in the straw poll and Santorum came in a close third.

King County Republican Party Chairman Lori Sotelo called the coordination between Santorum and Paul supporters a "weird alliance" given the libertarian views of Paul, which are often at odds with Santorum.

A spokeswoman for the Paul campaign, though, said in an email they are "fully aboard" with the effort.

State Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur said he's growing concerned about scheming leading to a disruptive fight at the state convention.

And the Santorum campaign's move — directed by the national campaign — has turned off some local supporters who had been working on "unity slates" to fairly apportion delegates among the Santorum, Romney and Newt Gingrich campaigns.

Garry Pagon, a longtime Snohomish County Republican activist, sent a letter of resignation to the Santorum campaign Thursday. Pagon had been the campaign's coordinator for the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts, but said in the letter he could not continue in that role.

Pagon wrote that "personal animosities" have developed between some Santorum and Paul supporters, so "many of our people will not be willing to work with the Paul campaign."

"If we revoke commitments that we made," Pagon's letter added, "then we will lose most of our credibility going forward, and other campaigns will not trust any negotiations that we attempt in the future."

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

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