Dino Rossi may be the Republican front-runner to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, but you'd have had a hard time telling that at the state Republican convention Saturday.

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VANCOUVER, Wash. — Dino Rossi may be the Republican front-runner to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, but you’d have had a hard time telling that at the state Republican convention Saturday.

Rossi did get a standing ovation when he entered and applause during his speech, but the reception seemed tame compared to 2004 and 2008 when he ran for governor.

Tea-party favorite Clint Didier had the crowd roaring at times. “When I get to D.C., there’s going to be hell to pay and I’m taking the heat with me,” said Didier, also vying for the GOP nomination to run against Murray.

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Didier, a Pasco farmer and former Washington Redskins football player, has Sarah Palin’s endorsement and an avid tea-party following. He flew from Vancouver to Richland on Friday to meet with Palin, a former vice-presidential candidate, who reiterated her support.

“He knew he had something to offer this great state and our country,” Palin said of Didier. “He didn’t wait to see what the lineup would look like. He didn’t play the political games that so many others do.”

Tea-party activists apparently made a strong showing at the Republican convention, which is a kind of giant pep rally for the party and does not decide who will run in November. That happens in the August primary.

Organizers said more than 1,600 attended, nearly double the turnout at the last nonpresidential convention four years ago.

There was no way to know how many consider themselves tea-party activists versus plain old conservatives. But regardless of the label, it looked like more people were waving Didier signs than Rossi ones.

Didier has called Rossi an establishment candidate and questioned his core values. “I don’t believe he’s the conservative people think he is,” Didier said in a May news release.

Didier didn’t talk about Rossi on Saturday. Instead, he aimed his attack at the Democrat-controlled Congress. “By God, it’s time we the people had the courage and the fortitude to take our country back,” he said.

Rossi hit on several conservative principles, calling for an end to Congressional earmarks, a balanced-budget amendment and replacement of the new national health-care law “with a free-market solution.”

“We can’t leave this to the so-called elites,” Rossi said. “It’s our country. We have to fight for it.”

Rossi supporters at the convention said he has the best chance to beat Murray.

“I’ve followed Rossi for 10 years. I’d pick Rossi [over] a guy I don’t know that well,” said John Kinnick, a delegate from Marysville, referring to Didier.

Rossi “has a chance to win,” Kinnick said. “I think these other people don’t.”

Lester Selzler of Maple Valley said he identified more with Rossi. “I’m not ultra conservative; I’m not lightly conservative. I’m middle of the road. For me, that’s where he’s at,” Selzler said.

Didier’s supporters questioned Rossi’s values and his timing for getting into the race. Rossi announced on May 26 after months of speculation. Didier said he was running back in January.

“I’m firmly not in the Rossi camp,” said Lori Collins, a delegate from Snohomish County.

Didier has spent time talking to voters, she said, while Rossi came late to the race. “The first time I saw Rossi was here,” Collins said.

Marc Knauss, of Edmonds, said Rossi has not given straight answers on his views. “I think Rossi will say whatever will get him elected,” he said.

State Republican Chairman Luke Esser said he welcomes the tea-party movement. “The Republican party is always re-energized from the right,” he said.

As for the GOP contest to run against Murray, Esser said: “I’m not concerned at all about having a vigorous primary, as long as the main focus remains on defeating Patty Murray in November.”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Andrew Garber: agarber@seattetimes.com

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