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Super Tuesday: What to watch for

Gannett News Service

LOS ANGELES – California is Super Tuesday’s megaprize, but other trends could be evident long before the polls close here in the biggest delegate extravaganza in presidential primary history.

Neither party has enough delegates in play for anyone to win the nomination outright, but a candidate that takes a clear majority of states and delegates could emerge virtually unstoppable.

Conversely, if the day produces rough parity in one or both parties, the nomination fight could go well into spring.

What appear to be close fights among Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in California are only part of a day that will include primaries and caucuses in 23 other states, including delegate-rich New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Not all states have contests in both parties.

As in general presidential elections, polls and caucuses closing in different time zones will suggest whether a contender in either party is gaining an edge that could propel him or her to the GOP or Democratic nomination.

Some places to watch:

The Northeast

If Republican and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is fighting GOP front-runner John McCain to at least a draw in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, it could indicate the GOP nomination battle will continue well beyond Super Tuesday.

“By all rights, McCain should win the states on or near both coasts, and Romney should do better in the middle of the country,” said Dan Schnur, a top McCain adviser in the 2000 campaign who is neutral in 2008. “If Romney is running very close to McCain in one or more of the larger Northeastern states, that is a real problem for McCain.”

New York

This should be Hillary Clinton territory, because she represents the state in the Senate. But if Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is giving her a battle there, it won’t portend well for Clinton across the map, and it could hint at a strong Obama showing in California.

The South

This is the most intriguing part of the Super Tuesday map. Republican Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, is pinning a lot of hopes on winning or at least doing well in states from Georgia to Oklahoma, where delegates are awarded at least partially by congressional district.

Huckabee wants to garner some convention delegates and is hoping for a muddied outcome in the contest between McCain and Romney.

If McCain is beating both Huckabee and Romney in the South, that will be very good news for the Arizona senator. McCain has picked up a lot of key endorsements in this region since winning the South Carolina primary, but the South is also a region where Romney’s claims to be the true conservative in the GOP primary fight could resonate most.

“If Romney is not doing very well in the Southeast and deep South, then that is a real problem for him,” Schnur said.

GOP pollster Whit Ayres said, “I don’t know if Huckabee could win states, but he could win congressional districts. And, depending upon where that happens,” he could pick up delegates.

Republican Ron Paul, who has strong fundraising prowess but disappointing results in contests so far, could have greatest impact in the South and in a smattering of midcontinent contests, from Oklahoma to North Dakota.

California

If the popular vote is close here, it may take till Wednesday to sort out the true winner.

Each party awards delegates using complicated formulas based partly on how candidates do in each of California’s 53 congressional districts. But the state winner in raw votes will have at least part of the day’s headline, if not the clincher.

Democratic consultant Bob Mulholland said the most sought-after headline of the day will be “X wins California.”

Ayres agrees, to a point.

“You have so many delegates hanging out there, you may not be able to get a final sense until you see what California does,” Ayres said.

But he also said that if one candidate wins New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and another wins Georgia and Tennessee, “that is a pretty good indication we will have a split verdict.”

And if one candidate sweeps most or all of those states?

“Then,” said Ayres, “you will have a real good indication that we will have a clear winner on Super Tuesday.”

Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. E-mail: craasch@gns.gannett.com. For his Furthermore blog, see this story at tucsoncitizen.com/opinion.

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