Romney builds momentum with easy Washington win
BELLEVUE, Washington (Reuters) - Mitt Romney breezed to an easy victory in the Washington state Republican presidential caucuses on Saturday, earning another momentum boost heading into next week's crucial "Super Tuesday" contests in 10 states.
With about 80 percent of precincts reporting in the non-binding straw poll, Romney had 36 percent support. Most of the precincts still to report were in pro-Romney King County, which includes the greater Seattle area.
The biggest drama was the race for second place, with only about 250 votes separating U.S. Representative Ron Paul at 25 percent and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum at 24.4 percent. Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich was in fourth place, at 11 percent.
The outcome marked a fourth state win for Romney this week, after the former Massachusetts governor picked up contests in Michigan, Arizona and Wyoming. He also won the other most recent vote, the Maine caucus on February 11.
Republicans are seeking a nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in the November 6 general election.
"I'm heartened to have won the Washington caucuses, and I thank the voters for their support today," Romney said in a posting on Twitter and Facebook.
"The voters of Washington have sent a signal that they do not want a Washington insider in the White House. They want a conservative businessman who understands the private sector," Romney added.
A Republican candidate needs 1,144 delegates to win the party's nomination. Some 419 delegates are at stake in the 10 primary and caucus contests on Tuesday.
States voting on Tuesday include Ohio, traditionally a national bellwether, Georgia, Tennessee and Idaho, Washington's neighbor to the east.
Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state Republican Party, said Romney's bid for the White House seemed finally to be picking up the "Mitt-mentum" that had eluded it so far.
"I would think this would boost his chances on Super Tuesday. I don't think Governor Romney has closed the deal, but maybe he's in the process of doing that," Wilbur said.
Turnout was heavy at Saturday's caucuses, which gained more attention from candidates and media because of the volatile state of the Republican presidential race and the looming Super Tuesday contests.
Wilbur said voter turnout could probably exceed early estimates of 50,000, versus about 13,800 who participated in 2008.
The state usually holds both a caucus and a primary, but the cash-strapped state government this year canceled the primary, saving some $10 million.
There were scattered reports of voters being shut out when venues filled to capacity, notably at a caucus in Kennewick in Benton County, southern Washington.
Washington's 43 delegates will not be allocated until the state convention in June.
Libertarian Paul was favored by local observers to do well in the state, given his campaign's active ground operation and legions of committed supporters. He was also the only candidate to run television ads in Washington.
As others turned their attention to Super Tuesday states, Paul made three stops in Washington state on Friday, finishing with a rally for about 1,000 backers in downtown Seattle. The Texan also visited a caucus site in Puyallup, south of Seattle, on Saturday.
An overflow crowd was on hand to vote in the gymnasium at Phantom Lake Elementary School in Bellevue, where 61 caucuses were pooled together.
"We had at least twice as many people as we normally do, and a thoughtful and respectful discussion of the candidates," said caucus organizer Diane Tebelius, former chair of the state Party.
Stacey Price, 46, said she backed Romney as an experienced businessman who was financially savvy and best equipped to tackle problems like unemployment and the federal deficit.
Another voter said he wished for a stronger all-around pick to take on Obama, even if it meant choosing that candidate at the party convention in Tampa in August.
"I would like to have a compelling candidate. The goal is a strong America. I would like to have the next Ronald Reagan," said Tom Taylor, 46, of Bellevue.
(Reporting By Ros Krasny; Editing by Peter Cooney)