SPOKANE, Wash. — He has the organization. He has the fired-up base. There are just two questions about Ron Paul's performance in Washington state's Republican caucuses today.
Can he win? And will it matter?
The congressman from Texas may have a shot at declaring his first victory of the Republican primary season when Washington state Republicans gather for caucuses at libraries, community centers, Grange halls and restaurants statewide. He came in a strong third in the state's caucuses in 2008, and has energized new followers in the four years since.
But Paul still faces stiff competition from Mitt Romney, who has built a strong organization in the state, and Rick Santorum, who has excited social conservatives. And a win by any of them could be fleeting, since the delegates chosen today are not bound to support a particular candidate. Official delegates will be chosen at the state Republican convention in early June.
Still, there was a sense of optimism Friday when Paul spoke to an adoring throng of more than a thousand people at the Spokane Convention Center, his second appearance in eastern Washington in two weeks. "We keep coming back to Washington because we expect to do real well here," he said, in his typically laconic way.
Santorum had campaigned in Spokane the day before, exciting a crowd of several hundred at a Pentecostal church. His biggest applause line may have been when he talked about how he, like Ronald Reagan, speaks out about the existence of evil in the world.
Paul's loudest applause came when a member of the audience stood up during a question-and-answer session to say: "I'm just wondering if you think there's ever a time when it's appropriate to put your party ahead of principles."
"Never," Paul said. The audience leapt to its feet, cheering.
Both groups shared a detestation of President Barack Obama and the view that their candidate was the best man to solve the nation's problems. Santorum supporters were much more likely to say they would support the GOP candidate even if their favorite loses. In a sampling of Paul supporters, most said they would sit out the election or write in Paul's name if he is not the nominee in November.