BELLEVUE — Washington Republicans will caucus Saturday, hoping to make or break the four presidential candidates’ momentum — however briefly, before 10 more states weigh in Tuesday — in the race for the party’s 2012 nomination.
While only about 60,000 Republicans are expected to turn out in a state of 3.7 million voters, the political world will watch closely.
Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich all have campaigned in the state recently. Paul is running ads, and all but Gingrich paid last-minute visits. Each thinks he has a shot at Saturday night/Sunday morning headlines saying he won the nonbinding caucuses.
“It’s a small, dedicated slice of people who turn out, and it’s very easy to organize,” said David Ammons, a spokesman for the Washington secretary of state.
So easy that in 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson upset establishment figures Vice President George H.W. Bush and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole.
Many Republicans weren’t pleased with that, and in succeeding years Washington held a primary instead, hoping to attract more voters. This year the primary is out because of its cost — an estimated $10 million.
One wild card will be the libertarians who tend to support Paul, said Travis Ridout, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University.
The Texas congressman has hosted well-attended rallies in the state, including a Richland appearance that drew 1,500 people. He’s also been running ads blasting Santorum as a “counterfeit conservative” and Romney as a “flip-flopper.”
Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, appeals most to social conservatives. He drew about 700 people to a rally Thursday night in Pasco.
“We can put this race on a whole other plane if Washington speaks conservatively on Saturday,” he said. “You folks in Washington state have the opportunity to say you want a conservative nominee for the Republican Party this fall.”
Ridout questioned how much Santorum could surge here.
“In terms of social issues, Washington tends to be more moderate,” he said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a law last month legalizing gay marriage in the state.
Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, is vying for the same social conservative vote. He drew a crowd of about 600 at a Tri-Cities rally last week, then campaigned in Spokane. But more recently, he’s devoted most of his energy to his former home state of Georgia.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, would seem to fit the profile of the center-right Republican who often wins statewide elections here. He stopped Thursday in Bellevue, a Seattle suburb, for a tony fundraiser.
On Friday, he revved up a Bellevue crowd of about 300 at Highland Community Center.
Most in the audience raised their hands when they were asked whether they’d never been to a caucus; Romney is counting on his organization to turn them out.
“I know most of you don’t know how to get to a caucus site,” he said, then told them how to find one.
“It won’t take a long time. It’ll just make a big difference,” Romney said.
He spent most of his talk contrasting himself with President Barack Obama and promised freer trade, a big driver of the economy at ports on Puget Sound.
His audience was mostly moderate conservatives.
“He’s presidential,” said Craig Shilton, a retired Bonney Lake dentist. “Santorum can’t attract independents, and so many social issues have already been decided by the American people.”
The Washington winner will get a brief boost over the weekend heading into the 10 Super Tuesday contests, including one in neighboring Idaho.
Ammons of the secretary of state’s office said Saturday’s result was difficult to handicap.
“This is a process that attracts the true believers,” he said, “not the rank and file that doesn’t want to go argue with their neighbor about politics.”