UPDATED 3/14/12 5:50 a.m.

The Deep South may have given a big boost to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum Tuesday, but the most southern state in the country — geographically, that is — gave former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney something to cheer about.

Romney took 45 percent of the Hawaii Republican caucus vote to Santorum’s 25 percent. Texas Congressman Ron Paul was third with 18 percent, with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich finishing last with just 11 percent.

Romney crushed his rivals, especially in rural Oahu, places like Laie, where more than 1,000 voters turned out. He also won Kauai. But he only narrowly won Maui and lost to Paul by 22 votes on the Big Island. Romney received 4,250 votes, Santorum 2,369, Paul 1,712 and Gingrich 1,034.

For Romney — who finished third in both Alabama and Mississippi — the Hawaii win was the one bit of good news on an otherwise rough night. The state’s 17 delegates will be divided up proportionately. (Hawaii will also send three uncommitted super delegates to the national GOP convention in Tampa, Fla.)

UPDATE In an email sent at 3:54 a.m. Wednesday, the party said its unofficial delegate count was Romney 9, Santorum 5 and Paul 3. Gingrich would win no delegates. It pointed out that as a result of his victory in Hawaii and American Samoa, Romney would win the most delegates on Tuesday, despite losing the two highest-profile states.

The Hawaii and American Samoa victories made for a Pacific Island sweep, as he had already won caucuses in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands on Saturday.

For the Hawaii Republican Party, Tuesday was the chance to show it could play in the big leagues by holding its first-ever presidential caucus.

The general buzz at the 45 polling sites across the state — Civil Beat reported from seven on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island as well as from GOP headquarters in Honolulu — was of an energized party eager to kick Barack Obama out of the White House.

No major voting errors were reported, though several precincts ran out of ballots and had to give voters strips of paper to record their preferences. And there was grumbling about voters being turned away at 8 p.m. at a few precincts.

The vote count also seemed slow by modern standards, with the election not declared for Romney until about 10:30 p.m., when most folks on the mainland were fast asleep.

The turnout of 9,365 voters in President Barack Obama’s birth state showed that the Punahou School graduate is not universally loved in Hawaii Nei. But it was in the ballpark of the expectations party officials had set.

Those results paled in comparison to the caucus held by the Democratic Party of Hawaii in 2008: More than 37,000 party members cast votes on Feb. 19 of that year, with 76 percent going to Obama.

Nonetheless, many Republican leaders viewed the night as a success.

Former Gov. Linda Lingle, who voted in Hawaii Kai, told Civil Beat she initially had reservations about her party holding a caucus. After learning how excited fellow Republicans were, however, she said she’d welcome a GOP presidential caucus in 2016.

“I have come to think it’s a really great process and involved a lot of people who might not get involved on a local race or a legislative race in their district, this has brought them out,” she said. “That’s very good — very good for the party, but also very good for the state, because to the extent you have a stronger Republican Party, you have a better chance for a two-party system. And that benefits everybody.”

A GOP First

Republicans decided at their 2011 party convention in Kauai to hold a first-ever presidential caucus. The idea was to attract new members, have a direct say in the presidential campaign and get some national exposure.

Hawaii Republicans have been in the minority for more than a half century, and Democrats continue to dominate government and politics. The party has about 20,000 registered members, according to Party Chair David Chang, though voters are not required to register party affiliation to vote in Hawaii elections.

About 45,000 Republicans voted in recent GOP primaries, and Chang said the caucus goal was for between 5,000 to 10,000 members to vote. (During the 2008 presidential race, Hawaii’s GOP delegates were selected at the state’s convention. Sen. John McCain of Arizona would eventually pick up all 20.)

The decision to hold a caucus was opposed by some Republicans, as the party has struggled to raise money and pay off debt, including mortgage payments for its Kapiolani Boulevard headquarters.

Internally, the party has experienced leadership battles.

Chang replaced Jonah Kaauwai as party chair in September 2011 after key party leaders forced him to step down. Under Kaauwai’s leadership, the party had failed to elect more Republicans; Kaauwai had also upset some with his strong Christian advocacy.

A more recent fight centered on selecting a national committeeman, with Lingle supporters favoring her former Cabinet member, Ted Liu, and others supporting party stalwart Willis Lee. Liu’s narrow victory has been challenged.

Successfully holding a caucus may help local Republicans present a more unified party.

In 2008, Democrats appeared divided. Hawaii’s top Democrat, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, actually supported Hillary Clinton four years ago, while current U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono supported John Edwards. On caucus night, however, they overwhelmingly went for their favorite son.

Rallying Behind Candidates

At the time of the 2011 GOP convention, the contours of the 2012 presidential election could not be known. Businessman Herman Cain actually placed first in a straw vote conducted on Kauai.

The date of March 13 was settled on as a Goldilocks compromise — a week after Super Tuesday but before big contests in Illinois, Texas, California and New Jersey.

While Hawaii’s top Republican, Lingle, refused to say who she would back for president until the party’s national convention in late August, she has said she would not support Ron Paul.

But other prominent party members — including former Congressman Charles Djou, former Congresswoman Pat Saiki, House Minority Leader Gene Ward and former state Sen. Fred Hemmings — rallied around Romney’s candidacy.

The four GOP candidates each paid $5,000 to be on the Hawaii ballot, and three of the candidates sent surrogates to campaign in Hawaii: Matt Romney for his father, Mitt; Liz Santorum for her father, Rick; and Ronnie Paul for his dad, Ron. Paul also ran a TV ad here.

Matt Romney’s appearances included visiting Laie, where the Mormon temple and BYU-Hawaii are located. Supporters of Santorum included the members of the Hawaii Christian Coalition. Paul was endorsed by the Hawaii Bar Owners Association.

Liz Santorum, sign waving on Nimitz Highway Tuesday morning, told Civil Beat that local folks told her they embraced her father’s economic plan to return manufacturing jobs to America.

“He’s the only candidate that’s said he won’t cut defense spending, that he cares about our military,” she said. “And I think that, there’s a sense of family or ohana is so important. That’s really a big part of my dad’s candidacy, saying that we need to build a great society from the bottom up, starting with our communities. And that’s important in Hawaii.”

The Election Ahead

The GOP candidates now turn to Saturday’s Missouri caucus, Puerto Rico’s Sunday primary and a March 20 primary in Illinois — Obama’s other home state.

It’s not clear whether the eventual GOP nominee will campaign here this fall; Obama is expected to garner a landslide of electoral aloha come Nov. 6.

However, Lingle is running for U.S. Senate and Djou has a rematch against U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Both chambers of Congress are in play, and national attention — and money — is already informing the local contests.

And, if the presidential election is close, Hawaii could well be a factor in the outcome for Obama.

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