Commentary: Thanks to Gingrich, Washington state's caucuses might be relevant

Newt Gingrich has accomplished something I didn't think was possible.

I don't mean his return from the political graveyard to win the South Carolina Republican primary on Saturday, as significant as that is.

I don’t mean his rapid ascendency to become the latest chief rival to Mitt Romney for the nomination for president.

I don’t even mean his remarkable surge that has transformed the GOP nomination process from a coronation to a donnybrook in a week’s time.

All are minor miracles compared with the way his success has increased the chances that Washington’s GOP caucuses set for Saturday, March 3, might actually be important. If the nomination is still up for grabs, the remaining candidates may want to contest the first West Coast state and a state with a significant number of delegates (43).

Washington is also one of the earliest states that isn’t facing a 50 percent delegate penalty – the punishment meted out by the national party for holding nominating events too early in the calendar.

If the candidates are still fighting over every delegate, they might actually campaign here and not just use the state as a fund-raising cash machine. Three candidates have full-time coordinators in the state – Romney, Gingrich and Ron Paul.

“They’ll decide what their campaigns will do here after the Florida primary” on Jan. 31, said state GOP spokesman Josh Amato. “I know we’ll matter if it’s still as competitive going in to Super Tuesday.”

Coming the weekend before Super Tuesday could be a good thing or a bad thing. Being alone that Saturday could allow the state to capture some national attention from both the news media and the candidates. But it might not be enough of a prize to divert candidates who will already be spread thin campaigning in the 10 Super Tuesday states that include Massachusetts, Georgia, Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee and Alaska.

Still, Washington’s 43 are not an insignificant batch of delegates. Florida, for example, gets just 50 delegates because of the penalty. No other state on the GOP calendar ahead of Washington has as many delegates as does Washington. (State Democrats begin their delegate selection with caucuses April 15 but will almost certainly send all delegates to support President Barack Obama’s uncontested renomination.)

Yet only a Gingrich victory makes Washington potentially relevant, despite all that has been working against its relevance. When many states rushed to the front of the calendar and when Washington lawmakers canceled the state’s primary to save money, the state became an afterthought, at best.

Because Washington is a battle waged in hundreds of small meetings rather than in a statewide primary, it requires both time and money plus a good organization to do well here. No amount of personal appearances and TV ads can overcome a candidate with grass-roots support, which is one reason candidates backed by conservative Christian groups have done so well here (like Pat Robertson who won in 1988 and Pat Buchanan who did pretty well in 1996).

It also doesn’t help that the caucuses are not winner-take-all, reducing the size of the prize. And it takes a long time to get to the end, because delegates elected March 3 go on to county and legislative district caucuses with delegates chosen there getting to elect the actual national delegates May 31.

The “winner” March 3, therefore, might not be able to count on a big batch of new delegates but could gain momentum going into Super Tuesday.

Or not.

Yet even the potential of national relevance is more than state Republicans could have hoped before Gingrich’s South Carolina victory Saturday.