HELENA (AP) – Mitt Romney captured Montana’s first-ever Super Tuesday caucus, earning all 25 of the state’s delegates to the Republican National Convention.
Romney — the only candidate to visit the state during the campaign — won 38 percent of the vote with all 56 counties reporting. Ron Paul beat John McCain for second, earning 25 percent to McCain’s 22 percent. Mike Huckabee was a distant fourth with 15 percent.
In the days leading up to the caucus, Romney had a strong presence in the state. Both his wife and son held campaign events. Meanwhile, McCain’s campaign made a last-minute switch at state chair — replacing a lieutenant governor unpopular among many Republicans for running on the same ticket with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
“I think it was just a reflection of the commitment we put into the state,” said Chuck Denowh, a senior adviser to Romney in Montana. “None of the other campaigns had close to the commitment we put into Montana.”
At the state’s largest caucus in Billings, there was little support for McCain. A table filled with campaign bumper stickers, buttons and flyers was devoid of any McCain paraphernalia.
“I’m the chair of the largest county in the state, and I did not hear anything from the McCain campaign,” said Brad Anderson, chair of the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee.
McCain finished third in the county, behind Romney and Paul.
It was the same story in Lewis and Clark County, where McCain also finished third. At the county’s caucus in Helena, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger handed out McCain stickers but was unable to vote. The party had ruled him ineligible for running on the same ticket with Schweitzer.
“I don’t think that signing on to be Brian’s partner makes me a Democrat,” Bohlinger said, adding he has not given up on the Republican party “and I hope they don’t give up on me.”
Bohlinger was replaced by former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns as McCain’s state chair less than two weeks before the caucus. But it wasn’t enough to sway the party loyalists voting on Tuesday. Only some 1,800 party volunteers and elected officials were eligible to vote in the caucus.
James Lopach, a political science professor at the University of Montana, said a McCain win would have been a surprise given that those eligible to vote were likely the most conservative members of the party.
“I did not see the right wing of the Montana Republican Party supporting John McCain,” Lopach said.
Paul supporters were also very active in the state and tried to fill the party’s open precinct positions, which were allowed to vote in the caucus. While heartened by Paul’s second-place finish, supporters said they had hoped for more.
“We are semi-pleased,” said Ellen Bell, who gave a speech on behalf of Paul at the Helena caucus. “We had hoped that Montana might have been a first for him. He has added so much to the campaign, to the dialogue.”
“We came real close,” said David Hart, Paul’s state director. “It was obviously an uphill battle. But we had a real respectable showing.”
Montana was among 24 states holding nominating contests as part of Super Tuesday. Montana Republicans decided to create the caucus system last fall, seeking to boost the state’s profile among the campaigns and energize the party.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to play a role in the presidential primary process when it is relevant. That is not an opportunity we have had before in Montana,” said Chris Wilcox, Montana Republican Party executive director. “It has also been great at building excitement in the party.”
Many of the party volunteers and elected officials eligible to vote in the caucus were new additions to the organization. But despite the early caucus, only Romney made the trip to Montana, attending the GOP state convention in June.
The campaigns, however, actively sought endorsements within the state, everyone from Burns for McCain, Secretary of State Brad Johnson for Romney and former Gov. Judy Martz for Huckabee.
Montana Democrats will hold their primary on June 3.
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