WALLA WALLA -- If there were any doubts about local interest in the 2012 presidential election, Saturday's Republican Party caucus put those to rest.
More than 700 people turned out for the party's caucus at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds, a number that dwarfed previous turnouts, said Jim Johnson, county Republican Party chairman.
"It was incredible," he said today. "We had 721 straw poll votes cast. Two years ago, which was an off-year, we had 65 people turn out, and four years ago, which was a presidential election year, we had 146 attend."
The Walla Walla GOP caucus was one of many held across Washington state Saturday. The results of the straw poll taken during the local event mirrored the statewide results for the party's presidential candidates.
Mitt Romney topped the Walla Walla caucus with 264 votes, followed by Rick Santorum with 226 ballots. Ron Paul was third with 117 votes, Newt Gingrich fourth with 90 votes and 24 people marked themselves as "undecided," Johnson said.
Because of the crowds, the caucus started later than scheduled, Johnson said.
"We had to marshal a lot of volunteers and all in all it went off well," he said.
An unexpectedly large turnout also occurred at the GOP caucus in Benton County. At that event, an estimated 1,500 people who showed up at the Three Rivers Convention Center hoping to participate were told at about 10:30 a.m. -- some after standing in line for 90 minutes -- that they wouldn't be allowed in, the Tri-City Herald reported.
Benton County Republican Party members who organized the caucuses said they predicted -- and prepared -- for 2,000 participants. Their jaws dropped when about 3,000 -- more than three times the number who showed up in 2008 -- tried to pack into the hallways and spilled outside.
"We were overwhelmed," said Tony Benegas, who ran the Kennewick caucuses. "It's tough because it's all volunteers -- nobody gets paid to do this."
While the Washington caucuses were nonbiding contests, state Republicans say the results could create momentum for the four candidates as they go into Super Tuesday, where voting takes place in 10 states.
Johnson said the crowd who came to the fairgrounds Saturday show that Republicans are paying close attention to this year's contest.
"I think interest in this election is extremely high," he said.