Suddenly June 5 doesn't seem so far away.
With a muddled outcome from the 10 Super Tuesday states, there's no sign the GOP presidential primary process will be resolved before California Republicans hold a vote that pundits once said was too late to matter.
In fact, June 5 -- when California and four other states vote -- is now "one of the key dates between now and the convention" in late August in Tampa, Fla., said renowned election prognosticator Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"As it turns out, every state is relevant, just as it was for the Democrats in 2008," he said, referring to that year's state-by-state battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. "You just never know. Sometimes 'the last shall be first' -- it's very biblical."
Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who now directs the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics, put it this way: "Rick Santorum might not want to wear his sweater vest to California in June, but otherwise the chances of him being a competitive candidate for this primary are a lot better than they were on Monday."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won six states Tuesday: Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont and Virginia. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, carried North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carried his home state of Georgia. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has yet to win any states.
An Associated Press tally shows Romney now leads with 415 delegates, trailed by Santorum with 176, Gingrich with 105 and Paul with 47. But Romney is only 36 percent of the way to the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination, leaving California's 172 delegates looking like one of the nation's most coveted political prizes.
In fact, Romney -- who won roughly half the delegates at stake Tuesday -- would need to secure more than 60 percent of the delegates in the 28 primaries and caucuses between now and June 5 to clinch the nomination before California's vote. His rivals face an even steeper climb: Santorum would need 80 percent of the remaining delegates to seal the deal before then. Gingrich would need 87 percent, Paul 99 percent.
So it's likely that California's 5.2 million registered Republicans could either push Romney over the line June 5, or deny him the delegates he needs to win the race before August's convention.
"California is the treasure trove," said California Republican Party Chair Tom Del Beccaro, and well-positioned to put the nominee "over the top."
He said if things continue as they are now, Romney will be so much closer to the needed delegate total that the other candidates effectively will have no chance. "Unless they come up with a better narrative ... this may take longer than people expected, but I don't think anyone can argue with the fact that Romney is in the lead," Del Beccaro said.
Romney's campaign came out swinging Wednesday to portray his victories -- including his razor-thin win in the key battleground of Ohio -- as a sign that he's moving inexorably toward the nomination.
But David Axelrod, senior strategist for President Obama's re-election campaign, told reporters Wednesday that the Romney campaign failed to achieve an indisputable, contest-ending sweep.
"Instead of 'Super Tuesday' it became 'Super Glue Day' for them," he said. "They're still stuck with the prospect of a long race."
That suits the Obama campaign fine, Axelrod said, noting that polls show Romney fared poorly among independents, young voters and middle-class voters in all of Tuesday's states except his home state of Massachusetts. "While they're destroying each other, we're building a campaign nationally," he said.
A still-competitive race in California will require a considerable ground game because the state isn't winner-take-all. Most delegates, 159, are doled out to whoever wins each of the 53 House districts -- three delegates per district.
Only one candidate has the resources needed for a district-by-district campaign in such a large state, Sabato said. "I simply assume Romney is the favorite there. Paul has fizzled; he'll be in until the end, but it doesn't matter. And Gingrich and Santorum are never going to have the organizational punch that Romney has."
But Schnur noted "you could've made precisely the same point about Ohio, yet Romney only won there by the skin of his teeth."
Romney is scheduled to raise money March 26 in Redwood City and March 27 in Stockton, but the candidates generally won't be spending much time in California just yet. With so many other states up for grabs first, they're likely to make only brief fund-raising forays here but spend most of their time stumping elsewhere.
Next up are Kansas on Saturday, and Mississippi and Alabama on Tuesday. Sabato expects Santorum has the edge in Kansas and could give Gingrich a run for his money in the deep South, while Romney is strongest in the Northeast and the West.
Kenneth Kotter, 64, of Belmont, gave $1,000 to Santorum's campaign on Jan. 4, the day after Santorum's surprising win in Iowa. He still supports Santorum, but even given recent developments, he still finds it hard to believe his vote will make a difference.
"I think it's in the Lord's hands because it's out of mine," Kotter said. "I did what I could and we'll see how it lays out."
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