SEATTLE — The Republican race to choose the party's White House candidate moves Saturday to Washington state, in the last stop before the nation's vote bonanza on Super Tuesday next week.
The far northwestern US state bordering Canada is traditionally a Democratic bastion, but also has lots of self-described independent voters who can take part in the Republican caucuses, potentially skewing the results.
Mitt Romney, who has regained his frontrunner status after defeating surging Christian conservative Rick Santorum in two polls earlier this week, got a boost on the eve of the weekend Washington caucuses.
The latest Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey gave the lead in Washington state to Romney with 37 percent against 32 percent for former Pennsylvania senator Santorum, 16 percent for Ron Paul, and 13 percent for Newt Gingrich.
Romney, campaigning in the Evergreen State on Friday, trained his fire exclusively on President Barack Obama, returning to his frontrunner strategy of rising above his Republican rivals' fray.
"This guy is out of ideas and he's out of excuses, so in 2012 we're gonna get him out of office," he said, in a familiar stump speech refrain, vowing to return to "the principles that made this the strongest nation on earth."
Although in past races Washington state has largely been off the beaten track for most campaigns, all four of the remaining candidates in the race to take on Democrat Obama in the November elections have campaigned here.
Texas Representative Paul's strong support among the young and independents could boost his chances in the state, which sends 43 delegates to the Republican convention in August.
But leading rivals Santorum and Romney -- who has regained his footing after winning easily in Arizona and surviving a high-stakes primary test in his native Michigan -- will battle hard for a pre-Super Tuesday boost.
The latest PPP poll was a turnaround from two weeks ago, when Santorum -- who scored a hat-trick of wins last month in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri -- led with 38 percent to Romney's 27 percent.
"The large shift in Washington reflects what has happened in the race nationally over that period of time," said PPP of its latest poll, referring to Romney's wins this week in Arizona and Michigan.
But it said: "There is still some hope for Santorum.
"Caucuses are unusually difficult to poll and although our polling of the ones in Colorado and Minnesota last month picked up that Santorum had momentum in the race, they didn't gauge the full extent of it."
The Washington caucuses -- which are non-binding -- come just days before Super Tuesday, when 10 states will vote for their Republican candidate, who will be crowned at a party convention in August.
On March 6 votes will be held in Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota hold caucuses; the rest are primaries.
In the topsy-turvy battle to decide which Republican candidate will take on Obama, Romney has now won six states, Santorum four and former House speaker Newt Gingrich one.
Delegates are awarded by each state in the complex Republican party nominating process, sometimes on a proportional and/or non-binding basis, until one candidate reaches the 1,144 delegate threshold required for victory.
More than 430 delegates are up for grabs on Tuesday, which could give a significant boost to any of the candidates if they take the lion's share.
With the field so split the results may help consolidate a Republican party front-runner, but are unlikely to determine the winner of the race which will then move on to other states.
"Two things are at stake," said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
"First, the primaries and caucuses will choose a large number of delegates. Second, victory or defeat could send a signal to potential contributors. Victory will keep the money flowing, while defeat will turn off the tap."
Some experts foresee little clarity emerging after Tuesday leaving a muddle which could drag out through the spring, in a process that could harm the eventual nominee.
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