When Newt Gingrich makes a whistle-stop Thursday in Kennewick, it will be the third presidential campaign to court Tri-City voters in less than a week.
Gingrich is one of four Republican candidates left in an anything-goes primary and caucus season in which a candidate can be the front-runner one day and be eating someone else's dust the next.
Gingrich, former speaker of the House, has one win under his belt in South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary, but former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum looks to have the edge right now, having bested early front-runner Mitt Romney in recent contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
But no candidate yet has clear momentum to take the Republican nomination at the GOP's national convention in August, and one local Republican leader said that makes Washington's March 3 caucuses an important benchmark.
Benton County Republican Chairman Patrick McBurney said Washington's Republican caucuses come before the March 6 "Super Tuesday" contest when delegates in 10 states will be up for grabs.
"That's a chance for either Romney to get back on track, for Santorum to keep his edge, or for Gingrich to continue to make his case," McBurney said.
And with Benton and Franklin counties being Republican strongholds, it makes sense for candidates visiting Washington to pay a visit to the Tri-Cities, he said.
"We have statewide importance," McBurney said. "It's not necessarily intuitive to come to the Tri-Cities, but because Washington is significant, you have to look at where do you need to go -- it's Seattle where the major media is, the Tri-Cities and Spokane on the way to Idaho."
And that's just the pattern that the Ron Paul and Romney campaigns followed since last week.
Paul, who is the only candidate not to win a primary or caucus so far, made a four-city swing through the state late last week that included a rally in Richland on Friday that drew about 1,500 people. His other stops included Sea-Tac, Vancouver and Spokane.
Romney's son, Josh, visited with 130 people in Kennewick on Tuesday morning before going on to Spokane. He did a four-city tour of the Interstate 5 corridor Monday with stops in Vancouver, Olympia, Tacoma and Bellevue.
Mitt Romney is scheduled to visit the state March 1, but it remains unclear whether there's an Eastern Washington stop on his agenda.
Only Santorum failed to swing through the Tri-Cities or send a campaign representative to the area when he visited the state Feb. 13.
-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org