In a Republican primary starting to feel like a houseguest lingering too long, Super Tuesday offers the party an opportunity to bring clarity -- if not closure -- to a race that has continually defied expectations.
Ten states, from Alaska to Vermont, will hold contests in the most delegate-rich and potentially consequential night of the campaign so far.
If front-running Mitt Romney wins the states where he’s favored and battles to victory in Ohio, he can build a case for the nomination, even if his delegate count is still a long way from the 1,144 finish line. If he scores a surprise in the South, that case gets even stronger.
But if his thorn-in-side rival Rick Santorum beats him in Ohio and sweeps Tennessee and Oklahoma -- the Southern states outside Newt Gingrich’s home turf -- Romney’s case weakens and the race will plod on, as muddled as ever. Romney currently has 180 delegates, compared to Santorum with 90, according to the Associated Press, which reports that 419 of the 10 states’ 437 delegates are up for grabs on Tuesday.
"Tuesday has the potential to do everything from effectively ending the race to keeping it going for weeks," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who was backing Jon Huntsman before the former Utah governor quit the race. "From the Republican side, it’s better for it to be over sooner rather than later because of the kinds of issues that keep getting raised. It’s not helpful to the Republican brand."
At a time when voters insist the economy is their top concern, the candidates have gotten tangled in an awkward debate over the Obama administration’s policy toward insurers covering birth control. The debate has laid bare Santorum’s negative views toward contraception, led Mitt Romney to stumble over his position on allowing religious employers to opt out of covering birth control, and forced conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh to apologize for calling a female law student advocating such coverage a "slut."
None of these recent developments further the Republican Party’s goal of making the 2012 election a referendum on President Obama, and some polls suggest the chaotic campaign is taking a toll.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 40 percent of adults say the primary has left them with a less favorable opinion of the Republican Party. Romney’s growing unfavorable rating is worse than nearly all recent presidential nominees. But the nationwide survey also showed Romney with his strongest lead to date over his rivals.
"Romney over the past few days has been much more on message," said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesman. "If you’re in Canton, Ohio, unemployment and gas prices are what you’re worried about right now, and a candidate who is not talking about those issues risks not connecting with voters."
The RNC is pushing back hard on the coalescing conventional wisdom that the longer the campaign goes on, the less voters like the party and its candidates. In a recent memo, RNC spokesman Sean Spicer pointed to Gallup polling that shows Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats, 53 to 45 percent, about voting this year.
"In a few more months, the primary will seem like a distant memory," Spicer wrote. "Ultimately, one of the four current candidates will be the Republican nominee. Our party will then unite 100 percent around him. The momentum and enthusiasm of the primaries will carry us forward toward victory in November and on to the White House."
Here's the state of play in Tuesday’s contests:
Ohio will be the most closely-watched state, as the leading showdown between Romney and Santorum. Romney has inched ahead of Santorum, 34 percent to 31 percent, but the race remains within the margin of error, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll. Santorum’s advantage has been narrowing in the last couple of weeks, suggesting momentum is on Romney’s side after his wins in Michigan and Arizona last week.
"It looks like it’s going Romney’s way," said Mike Dawson, a Republican operative based in Ohio who is neutral in the race. “Romney has spent considerably more money on television, and it appears to be making a difference, though Santorum has drawn big and enthusiastic crowds.’’
Romney is expected to win Massachusetts, where he spent his business career and served as governor, along with neighboring Vermont, as well as Idaho, where a decent-sized Mormon community leans toward supporting one of its own. He also can count on Virginia, where Ron Paul is the only other name on the ballot because Santorum and Gingrich did not collect enough signatures to qualify.
Not having to wage a competitive campaign in Virginia allowed Romney to focus his resources on Ohio, and it highlights his rivals’ lack of organization. "Virginia demonstrates the fatal flaws of every campaign that is not named Romney or Paul," Heye said. Noting that Gingrich and Santorum live in the state, he added, "They can’t even vote for themselves -- and it’s a Republican electorate that could have been pretty favorable for them."
Tennessee is Romney’s other best hope for a Southern victory, but it could easily fall to the more conservative Santorum.
Gingrich, by his own standards, has to win his home state of Georgia in order to remain a credible candidate. It would be his first win since the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina. If Gingrich manages to win another state on Tuesday -- say, Oklahoma or Tennessee -- he could argue that he's making a comeback.
Paul may not win any states outright, but he will collect delegates under the party’s new rules, which require states voting before April 1 to award delegates proportionally instead of winner-take-all. Those new rules, along with the rise of super PACS, have allowed candidates like Santorum and Gingrich to prolong their shoestring campaigns.
A Santorum victory in Ohio would be a setback for Romney, but the former Massachusetts governor is well-positioned financially and organizationally to go the distance. In contrast, Santorum has struggled to pitch himself as a plausible nominee. "Ohio could become one of those gut-check moments, but Romney has survived those before and there’s no reason he won’t survive another," Heye said. "If you’re Rick Santorum, it’s Elvis Presley time. It’s now or never."