By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer
Hawaii’s Republican faithful, as well as new members to the party, showed up at polling places across the Big Isle on Tuesday evening to cast their ballots to choose a nominee for the 2012 presidential race.
About 50 voters lined up outside the Waiakeawaena Elementary School cafeteria before the polls opened at 6 p.m., and more continued to arrive until closing at 8 p.m. Poll captain David DeCleene, who headed up a group of seven volunteers, said he was expecting about 300 voters to show up there throughout the evening, based on the number of registered voters in the area.
“I think we’re doing OK so far,” he said at about 6:30 p.m. “We’ve got a lot of people coming in the doors.”
Norman Purves, 58, a mathematician and college professor, said he appreciated the opportunity to make his voice heard in the party.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to vote in the Republican caucus,” he said. “I’m mainly concerned about the debt. I’m a mathematician in my studies … and I think it can’t be sustained. We’re piling up our debt, and we now owe as much as our gross domestic product. The interest that costs our country each year is half a trillion dollars. … We have to change the way we do things.”
Purves said he would be voting for Mitt Romney, “because I think he’s going to be the next president,” he said.
Kurtistown resident Christopher O’Farrell, 21, said he showed up Tuesday to fulfill his “responsibility as a voter to support one of the candidates.”
O’Farrell said he didn’t usually like to identify with a particular party, but in light of the importance of the upcoming election, he felt the need to register as a Republican. He identified the nation’s foreign policy issues and the economy as the driving factors behind his decision.
Meanwhile, 59-year-old John French, a self-described “refugee” from Los Angeles, Calif., said he was standing in line because “I want to maintain my right to complain.”
Volunteer poll worker Rick Toledo, 68, said he’d been helping out the Republican Party for the last 25 or 30 years, and this year’s caucus presented a unique opportunity to “stimulate interest in the race.”
“It is the war of 2012, and there’s a tremendous amount of interest,” he said.
He added that the election will hinge on three important points: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Tuesday marked the first binding presidential caucus for Hawaii Republicans. The state’s Republican Party leadership didn’t know quite what to expect, but Chairman David Chang said he would be thrilled to see at least 5,000 participants, total. The tallies from the 6-8 p.m. polling will determine who all but three of Hawaii’s 20 delegates will support at the national convention.
The possibility of winning some or all of Hawaii’s delegates drew rare attention from the GOP presidential candidates, who also faced off in Alabama and Mississippi primaries and in American Samoa’s caucus. Although none of the candidates made campaign stops in the islands, Ronnie Paul, Elizabeth Santorum and Matt Romney crossed the Pacific to rally support for their fathers heading into Tuesday night’s caucus.
Newt Gingrich, who spoke to the Maui Tea Party in September, kept his attention fixed on Alabama and Mississippi primaries that could make or break his bid for the nomination.
Hawaii Republicans did away with the straw polling of the past in hopes that a transparent caucus approach will energize the party and build membership. Filling out a party registration form is a requirement before casting a ballot for Gingrich, Ron Paul, Romney or Rick Santorum.
“It’s very exciting,” Chang said Monday. “The three campaigns are generating a lot of buzz from voters who might not otherwise have known much about the candidates.”
He pointed out that the Paul campaign bought local television ad time and Santorum paid for a robo-call, both of which are rare investments in national GOP races.
Hawaii voters tend to support Democratic presidential candidates, and as the birthplace of Democratic President Barack Obama, that isn’t likely to change in November. The heightened activity reflects how tight the GOP race is.
Romney is the front-runner in the delegate count, followed by Santorum and Gingrich. He’s about 40 percent of the way to the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination at the Republican National Convention in August.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.