When I pulled into the Coronado High School parking lot Tuesday night to attend the Republican caucus, having publicly admitted that I was an accidental GOPster, an opportunistic lib'rul among principled conservatives, I didn't expect to be welcomed with open arms.
Nor did I expect much of a turnout in such bitter weather — and was I ever wrong. The parking lot was full, as hundreds of caucusgoers braved the wind and blowing snow and streamed into Coronado's dispiriting halls.
I asked someone where Precinct 110 was caucusing.
"You're in the wrong building, John," she said briskly. "You should be with your Democrat liberal friends."
The room was full to overflowing, as 45 registered Republicans from Precinct 110 crowded into a classroom. Party activist/precinct chair Brad Collins, resplendent in a dark suit, American flag tie and American flag pin, started the meeting at exactly 7.
First item on the agenda: the presidential straw poll. Each of us had a preprinted ballot with seven names, including Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman. Collins encouraged attendees to vote for one of the remaining four (Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum) rather than wasting a vote. He then opened the floor to speakers.
It didn't look like a Romney crowd — older, shabbier, a little careworn. It didn't look like a Gingrich room, either — these were hardworking folks who hadn't spent their lives divorcing spouses and cashing million-dollar checks from lobbying clients. Maybe Paul? There were a dozen younger attendees. Santorum?
Half a dozen people rose to support the former Pennsylvania senator.
"Obama is just waiting for Romney," said an older woman. "If he gets Santorum, boom! He won't know what to do."
"The future of this country hinges on the family, the traditional family — and Rick Santorum understands that. If he can budget for his family, then he can budget for his country."
Other caucusgoers cast their lot with Romney. They seemed more polished, more sure of their facts (even when their facts weren't true), and somewhat puzzled by the sudden flowering of Santorum supporters.
"I know Governor Romney," said a well-dressed woman serving as caucus secretary, "and he's a businessman, which we really need to run the country, and he's very, very conservative."
No one stood up to support Gingrich or Paul.
Time to vote. We were seated classroom-style, in those plywood chairs with writing arms that plagued us all as adolescents, so it was easy to peek at neighbors' ballots. All Santorum. Our precinct mirrored others across El Paso County, where Santorum won a clear majority, cementing his statewide victory.
Romney may have won Colorado with 60 percent of the vote in 2008, but there's a new sheriff in town. Santorum's victory was stunning ... even if it may not mean much. That's because the straw poll isn't binding. Delegates to the state convention aren't obliged to support the candidate chosen thereby, and you can bet the party machinery is already making sure that Santorum's apparent home run turns into a strikeout.
Look, for example, at the list of local elected officials and leaders who have endorsed Romney. It's a lineup as powerful as the 1927 Yankees, including Bill Hybl, Dan May, John Suthers, Kyle Hybl and Phil Anschutz, as well as others such as Wayne Williams, Mark Waller, Bob Gardner and Larry Liston.
But the caucusgoers seemed to come from the deep wellsprings of the party, the dissatisfied majority who would like to see someone who mirrors their lives, hopes and beliefs. Their clear verdict: That someone ain't Mitt.
The often-scorned Santorum may be that man. Like Bill Clinton, he's learned from defeat as well as victory. Like Barack Obama, he appeals to a rank-and-file that doesn't much like their anointed leader. And like both of them, he's young, energetic and far less robotic. So we've got a horse race, folks — and the power brokers may have to reprogram RoboMitt to deal with the new reality.
As for me? I walked out in the cold, determined to change my registration.