- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania faces a busy election year in 2016, with the presidential primary campaigns expected to set the tone early on.

Republicans have nearly a dozen contenders and the primary winner is anything but predictable. That could drive up GOP turnout and give Pennsylvania a more important role in who gets the GOP nomination.

For Democrats, the choices are few and, barring any surprises, the outcome of the state’s April 26 presidential primary is all but certain. Hillary Clinton is widely expected to win in Pennsylvania, as she did in 2008.

The presidential contests will top both parties’ ballots, but Pennsylvania voters also will choose nominees for a U.S. Senate seat, 18 seats in Congress, 228 seats in the Legislature and the three statewide row offices - attorney general, treasurer and auditor general. Many of the seats are contested.

Clinton is the solid front-runner in the 2016 field that includes Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

At least two-thirds of the state’s 21 superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia said in an Associated Press survey in November they were committed to Clinton, who has family roots in Pennsylvania. Superdelegates are elected officials and party leaders who can support any candidate they choose.

Marcel Groen, the Democratic state chairman, said the volatile GOP race is likely to drive up turnout in the Republican primary while the lack of competition in his party may dampen the Democratic turnout.

“In the general (election), we’ll be energized,” Groen said.

Among the Republican candidates, billionaire businessman Donald Trump continued to dominate the splintered field. That could make it harder for a candidate to win a majority of the 2,470 delegates at the GOP convention, which will unfold in July, a week before the Democrats hold their convention.

Several state GOP leaders believe that the nomination fight could remain unsettled deep into the primaries and caucuses and possibly until the Republican National Convention - a prospect that could make Pennsylvania’s relatively late primary more important than usual.

If that scenario plays out, “it means that the different candidates will be courting the Pennsylvania delegates,” who usually are elected too late to matter much, said state GOP Chairman Rob Gleason.

At the GOP convention, a candidate will need at least 1,236 delegates to win the nomination. Pennsylvania has 71 delegates, including 17 at-large delegates and party leaders who are pledged to support the top vote-getter on the first ballot. The other 54 delegates are unpledged and may support any candidate.

“We could be in a very important position, come the convention,” Gleason said.

Democrats have carried Pennsylvania in the last six presidential elections.

High-ranking state GOP leaders are divided over which candidate would be the strongest nominee.

Among top Republicans in the state Legislature, House Speaker Mike Turzai is supporting U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, while Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati favors New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Senate GOP leader Jake Corman backs former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge, whom George W. Bush named the nation’s first homeland security chief, is backing Bush’s brother Jeb, the former Florida governor. Lowman Henry of the Harrisburg-based Lincoln Institute chairs the Pennsylvania campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, while fellow conservative Charlie Gerow, a political consultant, is a campaign adviser to former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina.

Jim Roddey, the Allegheny County party chairman, said he thinks Trump has peaked and the February caucuses and primaries in four states, followed by March 1 events in 13 other states, will help thin the field.

“Conventional wisdom is that Pennsylvania is going to be more difficult to win because Hillary has always been popular” in the state, said Roddey, who has attended every national GOP convention since 1988 and expects to be a delegate this year.

Some national GOP leaders have discussed the possibility of a brokered national convention to choose a nominee if no consensus candidate emerges by the time of the convention, though that prospect is considered unlikely. In that case, the nomination would be decided be a series of political maneuvering and re-votes.

“I think it would be exciting,” Roddey said. “Talk about public attention.”

“I would love a brokered convention,” Gleason said. “I would (be) right in the middle of it.”

Christine Toretti, the state’s other national committee member, had the opposite reaction.

“I think I’d sleep,” she said.

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