Despite Mitt Romney's twin wins in Arizona and Michigan this week, the long slog to clarity in the GOP nomination contest looks set to last well beyond next week's Super Tuesday primaries and could extend well into the spring.
Even with 419 delegates from 10 states at stake next Tuesday — 36 percent of the total needed to clinch the nomination — it may be May or later before Mr. Romney or one of his rivals finally amasses the requisite number of delegates to end the race.
"In theory, Super Tuesday could do it for Romney, but it's unlikely, because, in practice, all the candidates appear poised to stay in," said California GOP campaign consultant Arnold Steinberg.
GOP pollster Whit Ayres said that, depending on the outcome, Super Tuesday "could effectively end this contest — or extend it for many more weeks."
Despite Mr. Romney's win in Michigan, for example, current projections are that he and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the second-place finisher, will both receive 15 delegates to the party convention from the state.
Mr. Santorum and House Speaker Newt Gingrich each has one major donor who is crucial to keeping their campaigns alive financially. Whether their backers continue to help bankroll them will depend on how each of these backers greets the outcome of contests later this month — and such imponderables as how their candidates react to national and world events that could disrupt the dynamic of the campaign.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul retains his own ardent base in the party and is expected to stay in the race through to the convention.
Super Tuesday offers chances for both of Mr. Romney's top rivals to stay in the race. Mr. Santorum leads the polls in Ohio — a crucial state for the presidential election — and in several other states, while Mr. Gingrich leads in his home state of Georgia, which has 76 delegates in the biggest single prize up for grabs March 6, and he could run strong in other Southern contests.
"Clearly, a world fiscal crisis would put the ball in Mitt's court 'Advantage Mitt,' " said American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas. Mr. Romney's top claim to the presidential nomination is his successful business and financial-management experience in the private sector.
The hunt for delegates has a long way to go. Based on projections following Tuesday's vote, Mr. Romney leads the overall race for delegates, with 167. Mr. Santorum has 87 delegates, Mr. Gingrich has 32 and Mr. Paul has 19. It takes 1,144 delegates to win the Republican nomination for president.
Four years ago, 13 states had winner-take-all delegate rules allowing a candidate to amass big totals in a short period of time. Just six states this time are not awarding delegates on a proportional basis.
One giant unknown is how the race could be reshaped by a foreign crisis, particularly in the face of soaring tensions between Israel and Iran that could lead to a military strike against Tehran's nuclear programs.
Mr. Paul has put himself squarely in opposition to an attack on Iranian nuclear enrichment plants, while Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum have been hawkish to varying degrees on the subject.
"It depends on how candidates handle it," said Mr. Ayres. "Whoever seems most knowledgeable and reasonable — who seems the best in a foreign policy crisis — will end up benefiting most."
Analysts generally agreed that except for Mr. Paul, the candidates would compete to be seen as Israel's strongest champion in the race. The GOP candidates are scheduled to address the annual Washington gathering of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC next week.
"The impact an Israeli attack on Iran would have on the race and on each candidate individually would be completely dependent upon what Obama does or doesn't do," said former Virginia GOP Chairman Jeff Frederick. "The whole debate will be if Obama did enough or too little."
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