GOP leader defends his call on caucus night

EVERETT — Speaking in Snohomish County on Thursday, state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser stood by his controversial projection of Sen. John McCain as the winner of the GOP presidential caucuses last weekend.

The campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has criticized Esser for his projection Saturday night that McCain, who was leading Huckabee by 2 percentage points at the time, would be the winner. About 87 percent of the votes were counted at that point.

The issue has received national attention, with Huckabee expressing concern in an interview on CNN that the state party stopped counting the votes.

“We’ve never stopped counting, we’re still counting,” Esser told a luncheon meeting of the Snohomish County Republican Women in south Everett on Thursday.

The meeting had been scheduled long in advance, according to the party. Esser discussed several topics, including the caucus flap, with the 17 people who attended.

In a statement released Saturday night, Esser said McCain had beaten Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, with 25.5 percent of delegates to 23.7 percent.

In the latest count, posted on the party’s Web site Monday, 96 percent of the votes had been counted. McCain’s lead had widened slightly, with 25.6 percent of the delegates compared with 23.6 percent for Huckabee. Ron Paul had 21.4 percent, Mitt Romney had 15.3 percent and 13.3 percent were uncommitted. Another 1.1 percent are listed under “other.”

The party is shooting for having a final count done by Saturday, Esser said.

Huckabee’s campaign sent an attorney to Seattle on Monday, Esser said. Karen Blackistone of the Washington, D.C., firm Holtzman Vogel, whose expertise includes election fraud, was here through Wednesday, he said.

“She didn’t raise any legal issues” while she was here, Esser said.

Blackistone could not be reached for comment Thursday. Joe Fuiten of Bothell, Huckabee’s state campaign chairman, declined comment, saying all statements must now come from the national campaign.

Esser said he determined on Saturday that even if Huckabee were to double his lead in the counties in which he was leading, and if he were to pick up the pace by 50 percent in the counties in which McCain was leading, he’d still come up short.

Most of the counties in which McCain led were more populous, urban counties, while Huckabee’s strength was in less densely populated counties. An exception was Snohomish County, in which Huckabee led McCain 252 delegates to 210 as of Monday’s count.

“Nearly every county had substantially reported,” Esser said. “I could see the trend.”

The count was stopped on Saturday, but only for the night, he said.

“We just said, ‘We’re not going to do anything more tonight.’ “

The count was resumed Sunday and again Monday, he said.

Esser conceded at the meeting, however, that maybe he shouldn’t have used the word “winner” in making the projection, which is still posted on the state party’s Web site.

Two of those at Thursday’s meeting said they were satisfied that there was no wrongdoing with the caucus count.

“I heard Luke take responsibility,” Snohomish County party member Billye Brooks-­Sebastiani said.

“It was just unfortunate that we got such bad press nationally over this issue,” said B.B. McGinley, the county party’s membership chairwoman.

Huckabee trails McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, in the overall race for delegates, but has vowed to stay in the race until a candidate earns the 1,191 delegates needed to win the nomination.

Washington state’s Republicans have yet to allocate the 40 delegates it will send to the national convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul from Sept. 1-4.

Washington is the only state where Republicans use both the primary and caucus results to allocate delegates. About half of the delegates will come from the presidential primary on Tuesday, with the remainder coming from the caucus and convention process.

Esser said during his talk that neither he nor the state party is endorsing a candidate in the race.

“We’re neutral as a state party,” he said.

He said he hoped Republicans would vote their conscience and save their criticism for the Democrats.

“There’s nothing that unites like a common enemy,” he said.

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or sheets@heraldnet.com.

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