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Monday, February 18, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Election 2008

Enthusiasm missing as GOP gets set to vote

Seattle Times chief political reporter

Tuesday's presidential primary

King County polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. To find your polling place in King County: metrokc.gov/elections or call 206-296-VOTE (8683).

Vote by mail ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday. Permanent absentee voters who have not received their ballots can get a replacement ballot by visiting a polling place on Election Day.

In Snohomish County, all voting is by mail.

To find ballot drop-off locations: www1.co.snohomish.wa.us/Departments/Auditor/Divisions/Elections_Voting

The results from Tuesday's Republican presidential primary in Washington won't reflect the true feelings of the party's activists.

There's no way to tally a reluctant vote for front-runner John McCain, who's angered conservatives over issues like immigration and campaign finance. There's no box to check that says "McCain is my third choice" or that declares that a vote for Mike Huckabee was cast to nudge McCain to the right.

Interviews with Republicans in recent days show that a week after McCain barely eked out a win in the Republican caucuses here, the base remains unenthusiastic about him.

But many more voters will cast ballots in Tuesday's primary than showed up for Republican caucuses Feb. 9. That likely will mean a more moderate group than those who propelled Huckabee to a close second-place finish in the caucuses.

"I think we'll see a dramatic difference in the outcome on the Republican side," Secretary of State Sam Reed said.

Democrats also will vote in Tuesday's primary, but the election has been called nothing more than a beauty contest because the party won't use the results to allocate any delegates to the national convention.

All the Democratic delegates are being chosen through party caucuses and conventions. The state GOP will allocate about half of its delegates through the primary and the rest through caucuses and conventions.

To understand the lack of excitement among Republicans about the presidential race on Tuesday's ballot consider this: At three county Republican dinners last week, not a single Hillary Clinton joke was heard.

Poking fun at her used to be as much a part of Republican gatherings as the Pledge of Allegiance.

And while McCain seems to be the inevitable nominee, there was no call for unity from party leaders. In fact, there wasn't a single GOP presidential campaign sign on the walls of ballrooms in Lacey, Chehalis and Mount Vernon, where Republicans met for Lincoln Day banquets.

Crowds grow

Throughout the state, county Republicans are seeing bigger-than-ever crowds for their hallmark events.

But Billie Remund, an 80-year-old, lifelong Republican from Lewis County, said it isn't the presidential race that has people energized.

"It's Rossi," Remund said. "That's who we're excited about."

The big applause lines and the only standing ovations have been for Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi — or even a mention of him by someone else.

As dispirited as Republicans may be about the presidential race, they're heartened to see Rossi in a rematch against Democrat Gov. Christine Gregoire. The former state senator narrowly lost to Gregoire in 2004.

Remund figures that her fellow farm-country Republicans will vote for McCain in November. But many won't be happy about it.

Remund's friend Pat Dobyns, 75, came from Winlock for the Lewis County dinner. She would have preferred Mitt Romney.

Both women say they'd feel better about voting for someone who is more conservative and has experience outside of government.

Dobyns is having a particularly tough time being enthusiastic about McCain.

Very quietly — as if it were something a lady shouldn't say at dinner — Dobyns said, "If I were a Democrat, I'd vote for Obama."

Thurston County Republican Gene Pardee was slow to come around to the apparent GOP presidential nominee.

Pardee initially supported Fred Thompson. He caucused for Huckabee and said he'll vote for the former Arkansas governor again in the primary to "send a signal to the party, to keep to the right."

But after Tuesday, Pardee is done with protests.

"Then it's flat-out for McCain," he said.

Huckabee is popular among Washington's social conservatives, who in the past have dominated the party organizations.

Huckabee backers

Even at this late date — when Huckabee chose to get paid for a speech in the Cayman Islands rather than campaign here before the primary — he is finding broad support.

"I think there are a lot of folks coalescing around Mike Huckabee, not because of what he stands for, but because he's the one who's not McCain," said Bob Eberle, a former Republican state legislator who is now retired in LaConner, Skagit County.

He and his wife, Claire, were among the record crowd at the Skagit County Lincoln Day Dinner on Saturday in Mount Vernon.

Eberle initially backed Thompson, then Romney. His wife went for Romney early. They're a conservative couple who earlier this month went to Washington, D.C., to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference that featured appearances by McCain, Huckabee and Romney.

While Romney was speaking, Claire says Bob told her, "I think he's going to drop out."

"I said, 'Oh no, not after this wonderful speech,' " she said. But then Romney announced he was leaving the race.

"I was crestfallen," Claire Eberle said. So much so that she didn't hear McCain's speech.

Bolton persuasive

But she did hear John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton told the crowd that as someone who had received national-security briefings, he worries about the safety of the country and "we must put McCain in to stop Obama or Hillary."

That was enough for Eberle, and she now counts herself as a McCain backer.

Sharing the table with the Eberles were the grand dames of the county and state Republican parties. And they preach a more pragmatic approach.

Shirlee Dessert, 82, just retired after 24 years as the county GOP's membership chairwoman. She's also retiring as a precinct committee officer. She was impressed with all the young people who turned out for the caucuses.

"They're idealists — which is the only problem I have with them," she said. She's bothered by talk that McCain somehow isn't Republican enough.

"This man is a genuine American hero," she said. "He's sincere. He cares about America. Why else would he come back from that terrible war experience and run for office?"

At her side was Della Newman, who served as ambassador to New Zealand under the first President Bush. Newman has as much experience with presidential campaigns as anyone in the state.

She understands that part of the muted enthusiasm among Republicans comes from the fact that most GOP presidential candidates don't seriously compete for voters in Washington. She knows that firsthand from when she was chairwoman of George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign here.

Empty promises

The campaign promised to work hard in Washington. But by early fall, Bush had pulled down all his ads in the state and was spending his money elsewhere.

The state voted for Democrat Michael Dukakis, who lost the national race to Bush.

"I could tell you 10,000 ways that money could have been spent here," Newman said. But the bottom line, she said, is Republicans won the presidency.

The bottom line is important, she says. She can list examples back to 1976 where Republicans quickly unified behind the nominee, despite how hard-fought the primary race had been.

As for McCain, the best she says is, "I like him better than anyone else." But she thinks after Tuesday's votes are tallied, state Republicans will warm to the nominee.

"They're looking for a comfort level," she said, "and they're getting there."

David Postman: 360-236-8267 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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