Rick Santorum left Ohio on Thursday to come to the Republican heartland of eastern Washington aiming to steal one more victory in advance of the multiple-state showdown on Super Tuesday.
The people and the money are over in urban King County on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. That’s where Mitt Romney has focused his efforts, making fundraising forays among the wealthy Republicans who live in the suburbs on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, just across from Seattle. On Friday morning, he spoke about economic issues to an overflow crowd of 2,000 at a community center in Bellevue. People coming away from the event saw it as a sure sign he’d be adding Washington to his win column.
But a big concentration of fervent Republican voters lives on the dry side of the mountains -- especially here in Benton County where the Columbia River slices through arid ranch and farm country -- and Romney has not dropped by.
It’s a three-hour drive from Seattle to Pasco, but, politically and culturally, the cities are as far apart as San Francisco and Oklahoma City. The 700 people who turned out to see Santorum in the banquet hall of the Red Lion Motor Inn were clearly in his camp, at several points shouting out the ends of his sentences before he could get the words out himself.
A Ron Paul rally in Benton County a few days earlier drew more than 1,500 people. But Patrick McBurney, chairman of the county GOP, said he thinks Paul’s support has hit a ceiling. Santorum, on the other hand, has room to rise among the social conservatives who, back in 1988, showed up at the caucuses and won most of the state’s delegates for televangelist Pat Robertson.
Unlike Romney’s rally in Bellevue, there were almost certainly no Microsoft millionaires in the crowd that greeted Santorum on Thursday night, and the only men in business suits were Secret Service agents. There were men in cowboy hats and hunting caps, though, and a large contingent of children brought by parents who were proud to say they home-school their kids and expressed admiration for Santorum, who home-schooled his seven offspring.
Amanda Alvine, a young woman toting her toddler son in a sling on her back, identified herself as a home-schooling math teacher with a doctorate from Harvard. She said economic problems cannot be successfully resolved without addressing social issues. That’s why she likes Santorum.
“I’m looking to support a candidate for president who will fight for things I hold dear,” Alvine said, "traditional marriage and the value of every life, no matter how weak or vulnerable.”
Santorum clearly connected with the crowd when he spoke about rights coming from God, not government. They cheered when he declared that life begins at conception. And, in a state where the legislature just legalized gay marriage, his declaration that “marriage is between a man and a woman,” was cheered even louder.
Santorum’s stance as a gritty fighter against establishment elites also played well. Each time he told his audience that no government bureaucrats, liberal media or pro-Romney party bosses should tell them what to do or what to think, the folks in the audience showed they were with him.
“They say, ‘Oh, it’s over, oh, it’s over’ every time Romney wins another primary,” Santorum said.
“It ain’t over!” shouted a man in a hunting jacket.
“Don’t let the establishment pick the nominee, just like they did four years ago,” Santorum went on.
The crowd roared, “No!”
Santorum ticked off the names of John McCain, Bob Dole, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush – all moderate Republican nominees who lost general elections to Democrats. “When we run as conservatives, we win,” he said, comparing himself to Ronald Reagan and this election year to 1980.
“We’re just getting warmed up!” a voice in the crowd called out.
In caucus states like Washington, the race is, indeed, just warming up. After the precinct meetings, the delegate selection process will go on through county and state conventions. Enthusiasm and perseverance will count more than money.
Is the marathon battle for the Republican nomination becoming like the extended fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic race? Four years ago, Clinton’s strategy was to scoop up delegates in the big-state primaries. She paid less attention to the smaller caucus states, and that is where Obama was able to snag delegates and stay even with her. Something similar could happen among the Republicans if Romney is not careful. Santorum, Paul and Newt Gingrich could quietly gather enough delegates in the caucuses to deny Romney a majority at the national convention in August.
Romney fought hard and spent big to win just half of the 30 delegates up for grabs in the Michigan primary. There are 43 delegates at stake in Washington and the question to be answered today is who put in enough effort to claim them?