LOS ANGELES – Ever since the presidential campaign started, much of the focus has been on Super Tuesday, just days away. The idea was that any day when nearly half the country voted would have to be decisive.
That assumption might turn out to be half right.
With the semi-national primary almost at hand, Republican John McCain is in position to take a firm grip on his party’s nomination, even though he can’t win enough delegates on Tuesday to put him over the top.
On the Democratic side, the odds are that nothing will be decided in any sort of definitive way.
The question is whether either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York ,or Illinois Sen. Barack Obama will gain a significant advantage from the 24 caucuses and primaries on the schedule. At stake are 1,681 pledged delegates for the Democrats, representing nearly half of all the pledged delegates available during the entire season.
The Clinton-Obama situation is murky for several reasons.
One is the overall tightness of the race. According to the Gallup daily tracking poll, Clinton’s national lead over the senator from Illinois has dwindled to three points, the closest it’s been all year.
In addition, the Democratic Party’s rules work against any sort of early knockout. Unlike their Republican counterparts, the Democrats require that delegates be allocated proportionally in every state, making it hard to open too much of a gap.
So a Democratic candidate who wins 52 percent of the vote in a state is likely to end up with 52 percent of the delegates, more or less.
In the Super Tuesday states, taken as a whole, Clinton appears to have a slight edge. Polls give her substantial leads in New York, New Jersey, and several other states, plus a modest advantage in California, which accounts for 22 percent of the Feb. 5 delegates.
“I believe that we will take a big step forward on Super Tuesday, but we won’t be finished,” said Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign. “It’s a step-by-step process.”
According to Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, the delegate count is what really matters from here on.
“The picture will be very clear on the morning of Feb. 6 in terms of the delegates we’ve won,” he said. “There won’t be much room for spin. The facts will be known.”
In the pre-Super Tuesday push, no state has escaped the attention of the Democratic candidates.
California, though, is the main event all around, much to the delight of a state that is accustomed to not mattering in nomination fights, except as a source of campaign cash.
Moving the California primary from June to February was “the smartest decision the Democrats and Republicans could have made,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
For the Democrats, California offers 370 pledged delegates to be meted out proportionally, some of them based on the statewide vote total, most of them based on the votes in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts.
The Republicans are competing for 170 delegates in California. The winner in each congressional district gets three delegates, the statewide winner the other 11.
While the GOP rules might be complicated for California, they’re quite simple in a lot of other places: Whoever gets the most votes gets all the delegates. The winner-take-all system is in place in 10 states, including New Jersey and New York. So on Tuesday, one candidate could win most of the 1,023 Republican delegates at stake.
That situation – combined with McCain’s momentum coming out of the Florida primary and the endorsements he’s received from Schwarzenegger and former presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani – provides the sense that the GOP race might be moving into its final and decisive stage.