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Originally published Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Are GOP voters turning out for Clinton?

For a party that loves to hate the Clintons, Republican voters have cast an awful lot of ballots lately for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton...

The Boston Globe

For a party that loves to hate the Clintons, Republican voters have cast an awful lot of ballots lately for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

About 100,000 GOP loyalists voted for her in Ohio, 119,000 in Texas, and about 38,000 in Mississippi, exit polls show.

Since Sen. John McCain effectively sewed up the GOP nomination last month, Republicans have begun participating in Democratic primaries specifically to vote for Clinton, a tactic that some voters and local Republican activists think will help their party in November. Spurred by conservative talk radio, GOP voters who say they would never back Clinton in a general election are voting for her now for strategic reasons: Some want to prolong her bitter nomination battle with Barack Obama, others believe she would be easier to beat than Obama in the fall, or they simply want to register objections to Obama.

"It's as simple as, I don't think McCain can beat Obama if Obama is the Democratic choice," said Kyle Britt, 49, a Republican-leaning independent from Huntsville, Texas, who voted for Clinton in the March 4 primary. "I do believe Hillary can mobilize enough [anti-Clinton] people to keep her out of office."

Britt, who works in financial services, said he is certain he will vote for McCain in November.

About 1,100 miles north, in Granville, Ohio, Ben Rader, a 66-year-old retired entrepreneur, said he voted for Clinton in Ohio's primary to further confuse the Democratic race. "I'm pretty much tired of the Clintons, and to see her squirm for three or four months with Obama beating her up, it's great, it's wonderful," he said.

Local Republican activists say stories like these abound in Texas, Ohio, and Mississippi, the three states where the recent surge in Republicans voting for Clinton was evident.

Until Texas and Ohio voted on March 4, Obama was receiving far more support than Clinton from GOP voters, many of whom have said in interviews that they were willing to buck their party because they like the Illinois senator. In eight Democratic contests in January and February where detailed exit-polling data were available on Republicans, Obama received, on average, about 57 percent of voters who identified themselves as Republicans. Clinton received, on average, a quarter of the Republican votes cast in those races.

But after McCain ran away with the Republican race, and Obama, after posting 10 straight victories following Super Tuesday, was poised to run away with the Democratic race, Republicans swung into action.

Conservative radio giant Rush Limbaugh said on Fox News on Feb. 29 that he was urging conservatives to cross over and vote for Clinton, "if they can stomach it."

"I want our party to win. I want the Democrats to lose," Limbaugh said. "They're in the midst of tearing themselves apart right now. It is fascinating to watch. And it's all going to stop if Hillary loses."

In Ohio and Texas on March 4, Republicans made up 9 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, more than twice the average GOP share of the turnout in the earlier contests where exit polling was conducted. Clinton ran about even with Obama among Republicans in both states, a far more favorable showing among GOP voters than in the early races.

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Walter Wilkerson, who has chaired the Republican Party in Montgomery County, Texas, since 1964, said many local conservatives chose to vote for Clinton for strategic reasons.

"These people felt that Clinton would be maybe the easier opponent in the fall," he said. "That remains to be seen."

In the Mississippi primary March 11, Republicans made up 12 percent of voters who took a Democratic ballot -- their biggest proportion in any state yet -- and they went for Clinton over Obama by a 3-to-1 margin.

"They were going to do some damage if they could," said John Taylor, the GOP chairman in Madison County.

Another popular conservative radio host, Laura Ingraham, who had also encouraged voters to cast ballots for Clinton, crowed about her apparent success the day after Ohio and Texas voted.

"Without a doubt, Rush, and to a lesser extent me, had some effect on the Republican turnout," Ingraham told Fox News.

Late last week, Ohio's Cuyahoga County Board of Elections launched an investigation that could lead to criminal charges against voters who maliciously switched parties for the March 4 presidential primary.

Elections workers will look for evidence that voters lied when they signed affidavits pledging allegiance to their new party. One voter scribbled the following addendum to his pledge as a new Democrat: "For one day only."

Some political blogs have suggested that the influx of Clinton-voting Republicans prevented Obama from winning delegates he otherwise would have, by inflating Clinton's totals both statewide and in certain congressional districts. A writer for the liberal blog Daily Kos estimated that Obama could have netted an additional five delegates from Mississippi.

It is also possible, though perhaps unlikely, that enough strategically minded Republicans voted for Clinton in Texas to give her a crucial primary victory there: Clinton received roughly 119,000 GOP votes in Texas, according to exit polls, and she beat Obama by about 101,000 votes.

Of the nine remaining major contests, four -- Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Oregon, and South Dakota -- have "closed" primaries, which means only Democrats can participate. If Republicans and conservative independents continue their tactical voting, it may be more likely in Indiana, Montana and Puerto Rico, which allow anyone to vote, and possibly in North Carolina and West Virginia, which open their primaries to Democrats and independent voters.

Meanwhile, Clinton, despite trailing Obama in delegates, is projecting confidence about her chances as the nomination race careens toward the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. The morning after her big wins in Ohio and Texas, she was asked on Fox News whether she had a message for Limbaugh.

"Be careful what you wish for, Rush," she said with a grin.

Additional information from the Cleveland Plain Dealer

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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