- Associated Press - Thursday, March 1, 2012

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The fight to emerge as the Republican challenger to President Obama turns on Saturday to Washington state — a Democratic bastion known not just for majestic mountain ranges and good coffee, but also for independent-minded voters.

This Pacific Northwest state has a nonconformist streak and a rule that any registered voter can participate in the Republican contest, giving libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul of Texas hope that he can engineer his first victory of the nomination race.

But even though he had a strong showing here four years ago and is investing heavily in the state, Mr. Paul faces stiff challenges in Saturday’s statewide caucuses from GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

By Saturday, all four will have visited the state at least once, and some twice.

At first glance, Washington — a state that just legalized gay marriage and has a labor-union, blue-collar history — would seem ill-fitting for Republicans to come courting voters. It’s voted exclusively Democratic in presidential elections since backing Ronald Reagan and has elected only Democratic governors for nearly 30 years. Its governor and two senators all are Democratic women, and most of its House members are Democrats. Yet Republicans have held the secretary of state’s office since the 1960s, illustrating the state’s proclivity for doing its own thing.

“There is a real independent streak that runs through here,” said independent pollster Stuart Elway, noting that while voting patterns lean Democratic, his polling has regularly showed that 45 percent of the population identifies as “independent,” compared with 35 percent who say they’re Democrats and 25 percent who identify as Republicans.

There are a series of factors that explain the wooing by Republican candidates.

The GOP race is now a drawn-out hunt for delegates as well as a contest in which candidates try to build momentum by racking up a series of victories state by state to force opponents from the race. At stake are 40 delegates to the Republican national nominating convention later this summer, a cache second only to Florida’s 50 in contests thus far. Registered voters of all political stripes can participate in the caucuses, but they must sign an affidavit identifying themselves as Republican and promising not to participate in a caucus for another party.

There’s also another possible explanation for the candidates competing for caucuses in which only about 50,000 people are expected to attend, according to one Republican official’s estimate.

“It’s a psychological boost going into Super Tuesday if one candidate dominates or stands out,” state GOP chairman Kirby Wilbur said. That may be particularly true in a contest as volatile as this, with Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich all having won previous contests.

Washington’s contest is the last before 10 states vote Tuesday, offering a total of 419 delegates. Wyoming Republicans also will hold county conventions from Tuesday through March 10, with 12 delegates to the party’s national convention up for grabs.

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