LAS VEGAS — Back to the caucuses.
After three big primaries that seemed to write, rewrite and then re-rewrite the 2012 GOP campaign storyline, the candidates now begin a stretch run where four of the next five contests are caucuses, and the fifth, a primary in Missouri next week, is less relevant because convention delegates there actually will be chosen later this year in — yep — a caucus.
Nevada looms first, on Saturday, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum already are here, having conceded they weren’t going to do well in Florida’s primary but banking on the friendlier — and cheaper — confines of a caucus state. They spent the morning in Colorado, then flew to Nevada by evening.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won’t be far behind. Both head to Nevada on Wednesday, with Mr. Romney making a quick detour through Minnesota, which holds its caucuses next week.
Primaries are like any other election, and draw a wide swath of voters. Caucuses are far more limited. They usually take several hours, chasing away casual drop-in voters while attracting dedicated followers, and they reward so-called “ground game” organizations more than the “air war” fought by television ads.
“As we look ahead, its not necessarily going to be a two-person race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in every state,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a strategist for Mr. Romney. “In Nevada, I think Ron Paul will be Gov. Romney’s most serious competitor. I think in Missouri it could be someone like Rick Santorum. Or Minnesota, Rick Santorum.”
Nevada’s caucuses come first, with meetings at 125 locations statewide on Saturday. Colorado and Minnesota are slated for Tuesday, as is Missouri’s nonbinding primary. Maine’s caucuses already have started as a trickle, but hit full steam this weekend and run through the middle of February.
Of those contests, only Nevada’s caucuses will actually award delegates to the nominating convention. But each state will shape things going forward, as Mr. Romney hopes to continue his momentum and the other three candidates try to steal a victory or two and change the contours of the race.
Andrew Busch, chairman of the government department at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., said Mr. Romney will try to avoid the storyline that President Jimmy Carter faced when running for re-election in 1980.
“Jimmy Carter would win the crucial primaries and then, when it seemed like he had things wrapped up, voters would give Ted Kennedy a protest vote,” Mr. Busch said. “Romney will have to hope a scenario like that does not develop.”
The caucuses also present a chance for candidates to pick up delegates at a low cost.
Nevada will award 28 delegates Saturday, three more than South Carolina did, even though its likely only one-tenth as many people will turn out to vote.
That’s true across all four states, where the GOP caucuses in 2008 attracted slightly more than 160,000 voters, or far less than voted in New Hampshire’s primary alone Jan. 10. New Hampshire was worth 12 delegates, while these four caucus states are worth a total of 128 delegates.
Still, given the way some caucuses work, the final delegate allocation will have to wait for state conventions.
Analysts said Mr. Romney is poised to do well in February. Forgotten amid his loss to Sen. John McCain in the 2008 nomination battle is that he won the caucuses in all four of these states, and by giant margins.