The votes were cast in a straw poll and delegates to the county and state conventions are not bound by the results. Still, on top of wins in Arizona and Michigan last week, support for Romney here could be seen nationwide as a victory and give him momentum going into the Super Tuesday contests this week.
Statewide, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, was by far the leading choice with 36.6 percent, with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas the runner-up at 24.9 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was a close third with 24.4 percent and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 10.6 percent.
Snohomish County numbers roughly reflected those in the state. In Island County, Romney came out on top with Santorum second, Paul third and Gingrich fourth.
Party leaders gushed over the high turnout. Unlike four years ago, when the state's delegates to the national convention were half determined by a primary and half by caucuses, this year the caucuses are it.
Caucus locations in Snohomish County were packed, said Olga Farnam, GOP state committeewoman for the county.
"We were at capacity everywhere," she said.
"I would say representative democracy, the democratic republic, was the winner today," said Elizabeth Scott, chairwoman of the 21st District Republican Party. Scott served as chairwoman for a caucus gathering of 600 people at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo.
It will be at least the beginning of June before it's known how the preferences will translate into delegates to the Republican National Convention in August in Tampa, Fla.
Delegates elected in the precinct caucus groups Saturday will attend the county party convention March 31 in Snohomish. These delegates in turn will elect delegates to the state convention that runs May 31-June 2 in Tacoma. It's not until the national delegates are determined that they're pledged to a candidate.
In the case of those gathering at Kamiak High School, where the caucus meetings started late because of the large crowd, groups had to quickly select their delegates before entering into any serious discussion.
State party rules required people to begin the delegate selection process by 11:30 a.m.
This is likely because in the past, some participants have tried stalling tactics, such as introducing resolutions, to tilt the field for their candidates, Scott said.
Six people from the Puget precinct in the Picnic Point area selected their delegates based on those who said they would be free to attend the county gatherings March 31.
Participant Bill Jenness said he couldn't go.
"My daughter's in a play that day," he said.
Each precinct was assigned a number of delegates to the county convention from one to five, based on the number of registered voters in the precinct.
The Puget precinct was assigned two delegates. As it turned out, those who agreed to go to the convention roughly reflected the percentage of candidate preferences in the group.
Three in the group supported Santorum, two supported Romney and one supported Gingrich.
Sandra Hoflin, a Santorum supporter, and Gordon Barnes, a Romney backer, agreed to attend the convention March 31.
Hoflin and Barnes each said they were unlikely to change their preferences by the convention, but neither would they be inflexible.
"There's really one goal in my mind," which is to defeat President Barack Obama, Hoflin said.
"I don't see it changing but I don't have a closed mind," Barnes said.
Their spouses, James Hoflin and Shirley Barnes, held the same preferences as their wife and husband, respectively, and agreed to serve as alternates.
"This went unusually smoothly," said Dennis Russell, a Santorum supporter who ran the meeting for the Puget group.
Kamiak served as the caucus locale for 128 precincts, by far the most of any one location in the county. The next largest was Totem Middle School in Marysville with 67 precincts.
Michael Mates, who attended the caucus at Monroe High School, said there was plenty of time for discussion before delegates were selected, but that it was of a broader, philosophical nature about issues and not so much about candidates.
In the end, three delegates from among the seven people in his precinct agreed to go to the county convention, Mates said.
Among them were a Romney supporter, a Ron Paul backer and one who was undecided.
Mates said he entered the caucus undecided and left leaning slightly toward Romney. He said he would have preferred to indicate his preference after the meetings than before, and believes attendees were not adequately informed that their preferences would be recorded essentially as votes.
"There may be some unintentional disenfranchisement," he said. "The person sitting next to me put down Ronald Reagan."
The Puget precinct group managed to get in some discussion after they selected the delegates.
Jenness was the lone Gingrich supporter.
"I really like the idea of a man fallen and who's asked for redemption," he said. "I think he's really softened as he's aged."
There was no strong disagreement. The only candidate not represented among the group was Paul.
"I could be 100 percent behind any of the (other) three," Sandra Hoflin said.
Plenty of Paul supporters were present in the building, however. John Aaby of south Everett stood holding a large Ron Paul sign before the meetings began.
"I like his views on the Constitution," he said, adding that he believes Paul would balance the federal budget and keep the United States out of war.
In King County, there were reports of people receiving robocalls falsely claiming the caucuses had been cancelled.
The state party says it's investigating the source. Party spokesman Josh Amato says it's not exactly clear what happened, but they wanted to make sure people knew it wasn't true.
The state Democratic Party has scheduled its precinct caucuses this year for April 15.
Last year, at the request of Gov. Chris Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed, the Legislature voted against funding presidential primaries for this year, citing the state's tight budget.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Straw poll preferences indicated by caucus participants
More than 90 percent of state precincts reporting
Romney 17,275 (36.6 percent)
Paul 11,767 (24.9 percent)
Santorum 11,496 (24.4 percent)
Gingrich 4,995 (10.6 percent)
Romney 1,841 (42.4 percent)
Paul 1,081 (24.9 percent)
Santorum 973 (22.4 percent)
Gingrich 443 (10.2 percent)
Romney 314 (38.3 percent)
Paul 162 (19.8 percent)
Santorum 193 (22.3 percent)
Gingrich 132 (16.1 percent)
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