Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pulled ahead of his rivals in Washington State's presidential straw poll on Saturday, with more than one-third of the votes. Romney finished well ahead of Ron Paul, who himself squeaked past Rick Santorum by just over 500 votes. Newt Gingrich had to settle for about one vote in 10.
Turnout at the caucuses was huge, about four times the number of people who participated in 2008. Robert and Debbie Rudd came to the caucuses held at a Christian school north of Seattle; it was their first time.
"It's really important to get it right this year," Debbie Rudd said.
Her husband agreed.
"The country's just going in the ... complete wrong direction," he said. "That's obvious."
The Rudds came to support Romney, but inside the school, some longstanding Republicans were a bit stunned by the influx of people who wouldn't usually consider themselves Republicans.
Many of the newcomers were there for Paul, but Romney supporter Eric Earling said he wasn't concerned.
"I think it's a Republican caucus, and everybody who wants to self-identify as a Republican is welcome," he said.
Leading up to the vote, the Romney campaign had reason for confidence. In the more densely populated western side of Washington state, Republicans focus more on fiscal issues, while east of the Cascades, Republican politics is more about social conservatism and libertarianism. That translated into a tug-of-war there between Santorum and Paul.
Paul was the one candidate who stayed in Washington for caucus day. In Seattle, he delivered his standard stump speech.
"You know, what we have to do is not all that complicated," he said. "What we have to do is just get the people in Washington to follow the Constitution, and we'd solve all our problems."
He insisted that he had reason to celebrate, since the Washington straw poll is nonbinding. The process that actually awards delegates to the national convention is more drawn out, and that's where Paul believes he's gaining ground.
"The good news is we're doing very, very well in getting delegates," he said.
Lately, Paul has focused on caucus states where his people can get involved in the various stages of picking delegates. If his strategy works, by summer, he may end up with more delegates than this straw poll would indicate.
Still, the straw poll was the prize Saturday, and it went to Romney — along with a dose of that elusive magic known as "momentum."
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