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Democrats: Caucus turnout may top 200,000

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama crushed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in Saturday's Washington state Democratic presidential caucuses, riding the momentum of a massive Seattle rally and a last-minute endorsement from Gov. Chris Gregoire.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama crushed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in Saturday's Washington state Democratic presidential caucuses, riding the momentum of a massive Seattle rally and a last-minute endorsement from Gov. Chris Gregoire.

With about 57 percent of the results in, Obama was winning 67 percent of delegates, to Clinton's 32 percent. Obama was running strong across the state, winning at caucus sites in a wide variety of communities from Seattle to Yakima and Renton to Chehalis.

If that percentage holds up, Obama would get about 52 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, while Clinton would get 26, state Democratic chairman Dwight Pelz said.

The Washington State Democrats estimated turnout may have been more than twice the 100,000 people who caucused in 2004.

Turnout was lighter at Republican caucuses with Arizona Sen. John McCain carrying a commanding national lead over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

At Seattle Central Community College in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, one of the most liberal areas of the state, more than a thousand Democrats spilled out into the halls and took over more rooms than the party had reserved, forcing caucus organizers to appeal for money to pay the higher rent.

'I felt a really good vibe'
Luis Santi, a 24-year-old art director at Microsoft Corp., said he made up his mind to support Obama after hearing him speak at the Seattle rally on Friday.

"I felt a really good vibe and energy to it. Right now, you're picking a candidate based on character and integrity. The policies come later," Santi said. Obama was the overwhelming favorite at the Capitol Hill caucus site.

In rural Toppenish in the Yakima Valley, where many farm workers lack health insurance, Juan Ozuna, an accountant for a radio station, supported Clinton because of her long support for health-care reform.

"Her message on universal health care, in this valley, is something we need," said Ozuna, 52. "We need health care for everyone, not just those who can afford it." However, Obama was an easy winner in the Toppenish caucuses as well. Of the 19 people who caucused from the tiny town of Buena, 18 supported Obama.

Experience vs. change
In suburban Renton, Democrats wrangled between Clinton's experience over Obama's message of change.

"I do believe Obama's leadership style is critical for the future of our country," said Andrew Lofton, 57, a manager with the Seattle Housing Authority who argued that Obama would be more collaborative than Clinton. "It's a matter of style not gender."

Former Renton Mayor Kathy Keolker, 53, bristled at a suggestion that Clinton's time as first lady didn't count as experience.

"Experience is what it's all about, having a plan and articulating how you're going to get there," Keolker said. "Obama is a wonderful speaker, very charismatic, but what's his plan?"

On the Republican side early turnout was lighter, perhaps because Republicans use caucuses to allocate only half their delegates, relying on the Feb. 19 primary for the rest.

Even in heavily Republican Lewis County, the Republican caucuses at W.F. West High School in Chehalis drew only about 15 people, compared to more than 160 at a Democratic caucus elsewhere in the school.

"The only choice is McCain," Maria Easley, a 40-year-old financial analyst from Chehalis, who was first to arrive with her 12-year-old-son Clay in tow. Like many Republicans, Easley isn't enthusiastic about McCain, a maverick known for bucking his own party. "McCain is a bit wishy-washy. I'm not sure where he stands from day-to-day. But I don't think that Huckabee can go the distance."

Over at the Democratic caucuses, Nelda Thornton said she had been leaning toward Clinton but ultimately backed Obama because of recent hardball campaign tactics from former President Bill Clinton.

"I got tired of him. He had a real negative effect for me," Thornton said. "He made me realize that I'm tired of the Clintons, I'm tired of the Bushes, and I'm ready to move forward."

In one Chehalis precinct, three Clinton supporters and three Obama supporters all refused to yield, forcing a coin-flip to decide which candidate got the precinct's lone delegate.

'It's heartbreaking'
Kay Braden of Chehalis, a fervent Clinton supporter, called heads for Clinton, but it came up tails for Obama, who was a big winner at the site.

"It's heartbreaking. I still think she's the best candidate," Braden said as she put her head down on the table.

Democrats will allocate all 78 of their elected national delegates through the caucuses, and Republicans will use results to allot about half of their 37 elected delegates.

The state also has a presidential primary on Feb. 19. Republicans will use the results to elect half of their national delegates, but Democrats view the primary as a nonbinding popularity contest.

Delegates were also at stake Saturday in the Louisiana primary, Democratic caucuses in Nebraska and the Virgin Islands, and Republican contests in Kansas and Guam.