Washington State To Hold Latest Nominating Contest

The next big date in the Republican primary calendar is next week's Super Tuesday. But on the way, the candidates are making a brief layover in the state of Washington. The local Republican caucuses are Saturday morning, and for once they may mean something to the presidential race.

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The next big day for Republican presidential hopefuls is Super Tuesday. But on the way to Tuesday, the candidates are making stops in Washington state. Republican caucuses there are set for tomorrow morning.

And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, with the fight for the nomination still tight, for once the caucuses in Washington state may actually mean something to the presidential race.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Here's one, unmistakable sign that your state has stumbled into political relevance.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Attention Washington Ron Paul supporters. We have an urgent message.

KASTE: That's right - robocalls from cryptic, out-of-state numbers. And candidates, too - real, live candidates.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey. Mr. Gingrich.

KASTE: Newt Gingrich was already here last week, pressing the flesh. At that event, state party chairman Kirby Wilbur celebrated all the new attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL EVENT)

KIRBY WILBUR: This year, for the first time in history, Republican presidential candidates are coming to Washington in front of the caucuses, to get your support and your vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

WILBUR: First time.

KASTE: The caucuses are basically the party's precinct meetings. It's the same system they have in Iowa.

University of Washington poli-sci prof Matt Barreto points out that at this stage, no national delegates are awarded. But tomorrow's caucuses will include a non-binding straw poll and in this competitive race, that's a prize the candidates will fight for.

MATT BARRETO: From a momentum and perception standpoint, this is a crucial, crucial contest even though technically, the delegates will not be awarded for quite some time here in Washington.

KASTE: Barreto runs an annual poll of political attitudes in Washington, and he says the central factor for the Republicans is the East-West divide - sometimes called the Cascade Curtain.

BARRETO: Washington state really has two Republican electorates. It's not just two different ideologies, but it really is two different regions and two different mentalities.

KASTE: Over on the eastern side of the mountains, it's small towns and farms, and Rick Santorum has been trying to connect with social conservatives there. Here he is yesterday, at a church in Spokane.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

RICK SANTORUM: I get this question all the time, I get, you know, from reporters that say: Will you be the first president that home-schools their children? I said no, for about 150 years, all the presidents home-schooled their children.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

KASTE: But here on the rainy side, conservatism is more about the economy and government spending.

Mitt Romney is fundraising and meeting voters in the Microsoft suburbs, while phones in Seattle's 206 area code keep ringing with those robotic but urgent messages on behalf of Ron Paul.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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