KENNEWICK, Wash. — Mitt Romney decisively won Washington's fiercely contested Republican caucuses Saturday, according to network projections, giving him an important boost on the eve of Super Tuesday, when 10 states vote across the nation.
The former Massachusetts governor won 36.2 percent of the vote with 77 percent of precincts reporting. Trailing were Texas Rep. Ron Paul, with 25.1 percent, Rick Santorum, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, with 24.4 percent, and Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, with 10.8 percent.
The defeats for Paul and Santorum could be a stinging blow. Santorum Thursday told a Pasco crowd, "We can put this race on a whole other plane if Washington speaks conservatively on Saturday."
Paul, who had high hopes here, said he was running a decent second. He ran ads, drew enthusiastic crowds throughout the state and greeted voters in Puyallup Saturday. He has counted on strong showings in caucus states, where turnout is low and activists are more prominent.
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But Romney, who campaigned here Thursday and Friday, had the support of key Republican establishment figures and argued he was a true conservative.
Romney will undoubtedly trumpet support from Republicans in the West's second largest state as proof that he's hurtling toward the nomination, even though less than 2 percent of the state's 3.7 million voters were expected to turn out. It's his third victory in a big state in five days; he won Michigan and Arizona Tuesday.
"I'm heartened to have won the Washington caucuses, and I thank the voters for their support. Every day that passes with Barack Obama in the White House is a day in which America's recovery from the economic crisis delayed," he said Saturday.
In a year when Republicans have valued electability highly, the strong Washington showing could influence on-the-fence voters. 1,144 delegates are needed to nominate at the Republican convention in August, and 419 are at stake Tuesday. No delegates were chosen in the Washington caucus Saturday.
The most closely-watched race Tuesday will be in Ohio, where Romney and Santorum are in a close race. Santorum faced new trouble there after it was revealed Friday he failed to file full delegate slates, which could cost him as many as18 delegates.
The candidates also are vying in Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma and elsewhere on the single biggest day of the primary and caucus season.
In Washington Saturday, turnout was heavy, and reports said people were waiting in line atmany caucus sites and even being turned away.
Participants at the pooled Benton County Republican caucuses in Kennewick Saturday reported that hundreds, maybe more, were turned away by event organizers after rooms at the Three Rivers Convention Center reached capacity.
Some potential caucus voters said they arrived at 9 a.m., an hour before the caucuses began, to find the large hallways at the convention center packed to the rafters and were told no more people could enter the caucus rooms.
Paul was the only candidate to remain in Washington Saturday. He awaited the results in Seattle, and hoped to do well in a state known for its independent-minded voters.
Romney spent parts of Thursday and Friday in the state. His rally at Bellevue's Highland Community Center attracted about 500 people, which was 200 more than could fit in the room scheduled for the event. As a result, the former Massachusetts governor spoke first to that room, then to an overflow room.
In a race where he has had trouble cementing a bond with the conservatives who dominate the Republican party, Romney insisted he'd be on their side. "I want to return the power back to the people in America," he declared.
As a harbinger of Saturday's huge crowds, he asked rally-goers in both rooms if they had attended caucuses before. In both places, most people said they had not.
Santorum was counting on a large chunk of that conservative vote. His appeal has been more on social and moral issues. Gingrich visited the state last month, but has concentrated this week largely on his home state of Georgia.
The caucus results are nonbinding, but start the process of selecting the state's 43 delegates to the Republican National Convention in August. But because of the crowds, the results could trigger controversy.
Ray Swenson, a Richland lawyer, criticized local GOP officials for poor organization and said the results today should be invalidated.
"I think it's illegal," Swenson shouted to a gathered crowd, many of whom were filming him with cell phone cameras. "The Republican party leadership is taking away our freedom."
He added, "This is exactly equal to walking into a polling place and being told, 'We've run out of ballots. We didn't expect this many people. Go home.'"
Romney appeared to be leading in Seattle and the Puget Sound region, the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver and south-central Washington.
Paul was a favorite with voters in rural counties in northeast and southeast Washington and along the Columbia River Gorge. Santorum lead in just two counties — sparsely populated Lincoln and Columbia counties. Gingrich did not appear to be winning any counties.
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(Dupler reports for the Tri-City Herald.)