DENVER — The Colorado Republican State Convention kicks off Friday, but don't be surprised if Rick Santorum's delegates aren't quite ready to party.
Just days ago, delegates were thrilled at the prospect of representing Mr. Santorum at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The former Pennsylvania senator scored a huge upset in Colorado, winning the state caucus Feb. 7 with 40 percent of the vote to 35 percent for second-place finisher Mitt Romney.
Then Mr. Santorum suspended his campaign Tuesday, leaving his legion of Colorado delegates deflated and spurring furious behind-the-scenes negotiations for his orphaned delegates.
Santorum delegates reported receiving a flurry of phone calls from the other campaigns, but it's not clear where they'll throw their support. Sue Sharkey of Windsor, Colo., was a pledged Santorum delegate, and as of Wednesday she hadn't made up her mind.
"I haven't had a lot of time to evaluate that," said Mrs. Sharkey, who also sat on the Santorum campaign steering committee. "I'm still feeling the loss today. Ultimately, I'm going to get behind our presidential candidate, but I'll feel better about it if I see Romney bring Santorum into the fold and support those conservative principles Rick Santorum brought to his campaign."
Technically, the February caucus was nonbinding, meaning that no delegates have officially committed to any of the candidates. In practice, however, some delegates chose to run as pledged delegates, which basically amounts to a promise to support a particular candidate.
"It's a big, wide-open, somewhat messy process," Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said. "Let's say someone voted for Rick Santorum at the caucus. They're now free to vote for any candidate they want to at the convention, based on the changing dynamics of the race."
Having candidates drop out before the convention is an unavoidable part of presidential primary process, but the timing for Colorado is particularly sticky. Mr. Santorum was expected to come away from the convention with a commanding delegate lead, and his departure throws the gathering into more disarray than usual.
"Everyone could see it was coming, but the timing was a little abrupt for us," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "Santorum did it because of Pennsylvania — he wanted to get out before he lost — but out here, it means that Republicans only have a few days to cut their deals."
The state party expects to have 3,826 Republicans attend the convention, a sizeable increase from four years ago. State Republicans will select 33 delegates and 33 alternates from a pool of 859 hopefuls.
"It's about three times what we normally have because everyone wants to be a part of this exciting time," Mr. Call said.
Even as interest has increased, however, the number of available delegate slots has dropped. Colorado swung for President Obama in 2008, which cost the state 10 Republican convention at-large delegates.
For Mr. Romney, the Santorum departure offers an opportunity to pad his increasingly commanding lead. For the also-rans, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, the convention represents an opportunity to poach delegates who can be used as bargaining chips with the Romney campaign in Tampa.
Both the Romney and Paul campaigns are expected to run slates of pledged delegates, while other slates will promote issues. "You'll see a pro-life slate, a Second Amendment slate," said Mr. Call.
The wild card could be Newt Gingrich. While his campaign hasn't been as active in Colorado, Mr. Gingrich is viewed by many conservatives as the logical alternative to Mr. Santorum.
At the caucus, "folks would vacillate between the two more traditional conservative candidacies of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich," said Douglas County Republican Party chair Mark Baisley. "Now that one of them has left the race, that seems to be where they're locking in."
State Sen. Kent Lambert has been here before. Four years ago, he was a Romney delegate, only to see his candidate bow out of the race just before the Colorado convention.
This year Mr. Lambert ran in the caucuses as a pledged Santorum delegate, but he says the next step isn't quite as clear as it was in 2008.
"Last time, it was clear John McCain had wrapped up the nomination, so we basically indicated verbally that we would support the McCain ticket," said Mr. Lambert. "This time around, I'm not sure we're going to do that ... Romney only has 500 or 600 of the 1,100 delegates he needs. And you never can tell — if Romney can't get to 1,100, maybe other candidates would pick up."
Indeed, Kristen Grazier, a pledged Santorum delegate from Larimer County, said she plans to continue to support Mr. Santorum until she hears from his campaign.
"Rick has not released his delegates," said Mrs. Grazier. "He hasn't made a statement indicating his support for another candidate, so I'm going to honor that."
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