A contest now getting ever more farcical

Ten states are at stake this week in a Republican primary process that is as clear as Mississippi mud

Columbus, Ohio

Super Tuesday is upon us and the race for the Republican nomination will finally be clarified. Or will it? The runes say something different: more of the same, which, depending on your point of view, means either enthralling suspense or wretched muddle. Even caucus voting in Washington state yesterday, an overture to the main event, did little to help. While a winner was set to be announced late last night, more voting has to happen in the spring before state party officials decide how many of their delegates to the summer's national convention in Tampa each candidate should get.

It is partly the rules, many of them new, that are to blame for making the process of picking the right person to challenge Barack Obama so protracted. Some were put in place to make it fairer. Others seem designed to turn it into a joke. Why, for example, are only two of the four runners even on the ballot in Virginia on Tuesday? "The contest for the Republican nomination for president is far from over," Bill Armistead, head of the Alabama Republican Party, said yesterday, noting the close shave suffered by the supposed frontrunner, Mitt Romney, in his native state of Michigan last Tuesday where he defeated Rick Santorum by only three points. "It is clear the nomination will not, indeed cannot, be decided on Super Tuesday."

Exhausted and running low on cash – yes, even Mitt – the candidates have no choice but to grind on because with no one pulling clearly into the lead there is no reason they shouldn't. Almost every week brings new high-stakes contests. It is true, however, that no single day is more important than Super Tuesday because so many states vote at once, 10 of them this time, and so many delegates will be apportioned.

And nowhere will the battle be more intense than here in Ohio, a delegate-rich state and a bellwether in US politics. The two main contenders – we can probably agree at least that this is now a two-man affair between Mr Romney and Mr Santorum – arrived in the state last night and are unlikely to leave it before Tuesday.

Newt Gingrich has Georgia on his mind, however, and only Georgia. It has more delegates at stake than any other Super Tuesday state, but more importantly it is the former speaker's home. The polls suggest he will win it and, by doing so, will have new reason to stay in the race all the way to Tampa. If he loses, he will probably bow out.

How Ron Paul, the standard-bearer for the libertarians, spends these next three days is anyone's guess. But while Mr Paul seems sometimes to be campaigning in some parallel universe with his extreme views, he is actually quietly exploiting the changes in the rules to amass delegates like everyone, even though he has yet to win a single state.

He can do that because of the most important of those changes – the jettisoning of the winner-takes-all system of the past, which gave all the delegates in a state to whoever came first in it, in favour of awarding delegates proportionally. The proportional system is now mandatory for all states holding primaries or caucuses before 1 April. The idea was to make the process less front-loaded and give more states an influence on the final outcome.

That things would take longer this time was obvious from the start. Only candidates who bomb horribly are compelled to drop out. What wasn't foreseen was how unconvincing the frontrunner in 2012 would turn out to be. Mr Romney's weakness is also compounding the prolongation effect.

The priority for Mr Romney today is defeating Mr Santorum in Ohio, which looks doable but difficult. The former senator from Pennsylvania has about a four-point edge in the state. But there is a rules-related mess in Ohio too: Mr Santorum is ineligible to win some of the delegates in the very parts of the state where he is running strongest.

It is the Virginia set-up that promises to hurt Mr Santorum the most. Neither he nor Mr Gingrich moved quickly enough to get the right number of signatures to qualify to be on the ballot for the primary on Tuesday. While these were serious lapses by both men, the outcome seems idiotic: Mr Romney's only competition there will be Mr Paul; consequently he will win almost all the state's delegates without even trying.

Going into this weekend, Mr Romney had amassed 173 delegates, followed by Mr Santorum with 87, Mr Gingrich with 33 and Mr Paul with 20. It will take 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination. There is little doubt that once the dust has settled on Super Tuesday, he will have extended his delegate lead, even though he may have won only five or six of the states.

The way things are going now Mr Romney will not reach the 1,144 mark ahead of the Tampa convention in the last week in August. His fate then will rest with the so-called super-delegates, senior party types affiliated with the Republican National Committee. According to an Associated Press poll released yesterday, an unusually low number have so far declared who they will support. Twenty-three have gone for Romney. Santorum has two.

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