Romney, Santorum crave win in Washington three days before Super Tuesday

Holly Bailey

SEATTLE—When voters head to the Republican presidential caucuses here Saturday, the biggest prize they award the winner will not be Washington state's 43 delegates--which are not allocated by the non-binding election--but rather the ability to claim momentum only days before the crucial Super Tuesday contests, when 10 states are set to award 419 delegates.

Recent polls here have found Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a tight race in the state. But judging momentum in the Republican contest is tricky because of the state's fluid voting laws. There is no registration by party, and Democrats have been known to cross over and vote in Republican caucuses in the state.

A Public Policy Polling survey released this week found Romney leading Santorum by 5 points, 37 percent to 32 percent. That's a major shift from just two weeks ago, when Santorum led Romney by 11 points in the state.

Santorum's favorability numbers versus Romney have shifted drastically in recent weeks, down from a staggering 46 points better than Romney's earlier this month, according to PPP. ("Two weeks ago Santorum's net favorability was 46 points better than Romney's in Washington.  Now it's only 11 points better. Santorum's popularity has declined, going from +51 (69/18) to just +29 (60/31). Meanwhile Romney is on the up swing, going from only +5 (47/42) to +18 (55/37).")

Santorum has been making a major play for social conservatives in the state—casting himself as an insurgent candidate battling the "good ol' boys" and party establishment types who favor Romney over a "true conservative."

But while Santorum has enjoyed a bump in fundraising in recent weeks after key wins in Iowa, Colorado and Minnesota, it's unclear if he has the money and organization to turn out caucus voters here.

Ron Paul, who has focused his campaign efforts in caucus states, is thought to have the best ground game in Washington. But that doesn't appear to have helped him in the polls. According to PPP, Paul and Newt Gingrich are statistically tied for third place among likely caucus-goers, 16 percent to 13 percent.

On Friday, Romney made a last-minute trip to the state to woo potential caucus-goers. More than 1,000 people turned up for a rally in Bellevue, forcing the candidate to make his stump speech twice—first in the main room and then in a second overflow room.

When Romney asked how many attendees had attended a caucus before, very few hands in the room went up. "There are going to be a bunch of states that make their mind up in the next couple of days, but you guys are first, and so your voice is going to be heard," Romney said. "I know most of you haven't caucused before … It won't take a long time. It will just make a big difference."

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