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Ron Paul has a shot in Washington state

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.

Can he win? And will it matter?

The congressman from Lake Jackson may have a shot at declaring his first victory of the Republican primary season tonight after Washington Republicans gather for caucuses at libraries, community centers, Grange Halls and restaurants.

He came in a strong third in the state's 2008 caucuses and has energized new followers since.

But Paul still faces stiff competition from Mitt Romney, who has built a strong state organization, 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 anyone.

Still, there was a sense of optimism Friday when Paul spoke to an adoring throng of more than 1,000 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 laconic way.

Santorum campaigned in Spokane the day before, exciting a crowd of several hundred at a Pentecostal church.

The two candidates drew strikingly different audiences, perhaps summed up by the greater prevalence of facial hair, hiking boots, male earrings and tattoos at Paul's rally.

Santorum's 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 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 is the best man to solve the nation's problems.

Santorum's supporters were much likelier 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.

At stake are Washington's 43 delegates to the Republican National Convention.

But they won't be chosen today, when the state GOP will hold a nonbinding straw poll on presidential preference and then, separately, select nonbinding delegates to the Republican State Convention.

There, in early June, the party will select its national delegates.