King explains the hunt for delegates
03:38 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Newt Gingrich is casting GOP race as battle that will last until convention

Mitt Romney is well-positioned to do well in most of the seven contests in February

Romney's challengers have less money and resources to compete with him

The former Massachusetts governor appears in control in states with binding delegates

Tampa, Florida CNN  — 

With the Florida primary behind us, the Republican presidential race is set to go national.

Newt Gingrich, who was soundly defeated by Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s vote, is now casting the race as a battle for delegates that will last until the Republican National Convention in August. However, the former House Speaker is about to hit a wall.

Seven states will vote in February, and Romney is positioned to do well in most of them.

Romney’s conservative challengers – Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul – have less money and resources and will be forced to pick their battles before March when almost two dozen states will cast ballots.

Crucially, though, most of those states are holding small caucuses that won’t officially award delegates on the night of the contest. Although the news media will make unofficial delegate estimates for most of these states, the state parties won’t actually allocate the binding delegates that Romney’s rivals are so eager to hoard.

Instead, those delegates will be sorted out at district and state conventions later this spring and summer, when the nomination fight could be over.

As for the states that do award binding delegates in February, Romney is in control, which leaves his rivals gunning for a series of symbolic victories as they try to gain traction among conservatives before March. 

“A lot of this month is a big perception contest more than anything,” said John Brabender, a senior adviser to Santorum. “It’s all about showing momentum.”

Here is a cheat sheet for February, the next phase in the GOP race:

Nevada caucuses (February 4)

Delegates at stake: 28, awarded proportionally

If Gingrich is looking to recover his footing after his thumping in Florida, this is not the place to start.

Nevada 2012 is shaping up to be a lot like Nevada 2008, when Mitt Romney won in blowout fashion and Ron Paul finished a distant second.

Romney was aided in that race by a sizable Mormon turnout that broke almost entirely for the former Massachusetts governor, a prominent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

A quarter of caucus-goers in 2008 were Mormon, and Romney won 95% of them.

Romney made several early visits to Nevada last year and has a built a well-oiled campaign operation there.

He is widely perceived to be the Nevada frontrunner, and with just four days until the vote, the forecast is not expected to change.

And just to be safe, Romney is already running a tough television ad against Gingrich calling attention to his Freddie Mac ties.

“It is certainly Romney’s lead at this stage,” said former Nevada Gov. Robert List, a member of the Republican National Committee. “They have had a very aggressive ground game out here that really goes back to its roots four years ago – the same with Ron Paul.”

Paul has planted a flag in Nevada and is expected to outperform his 2008 finish. His campaign’s ability to organize supporters is well-documented, and smaller-turnout caucus states like Nevada represent Paul’s best chance to collect delegates.

Even though longtime Gingrich benefactor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson calls Las Vegas home, the former House speaker has an uphill climb in the Silver State.

Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond told CNN that Nevada is far and away the “toughest” state for them in February.

Santorum is campaigning in Nevada, but he is not devoting serious resources to the state.

Who has the edge? Romney

Maine caucuses (February 4-11) 

Delegates at stake: 24, non-binding

Romney dominated the Maine caucuses in early February of 2008, but his win in the small, Democratic-leaning state was drowned out by his glaring losses in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.

Less than 5,500 Republicans showed up for the Maine caucuses that year, and the turnout is not expected to be much higher this time around.

“The caucuses here are kind of a hard sell,” said Michael Quatrano, executive director of the Maine Republican Party. “We’re a very liberal state.”

The modest size of the electorate – not much larger than some high-profile GOP straw polls – makes Maine prime territory for Paul and his devoted supporters.

Paul spent several days campaigning in Maine last week.

“In Nevada we have a shot, but Maine is our best opportunity for an outright win in February,” said Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton.

The caucuses begin on Saturday and take place in different precincts across the state until February 11, when results of the “presidential preference ballot” are revealed by the Maine Republican Party.

But even then, the outcome is not expected to have a measurable impact on the race. The state party will not officially award delegates after the voting concludes.

Gingrich and Santorum, meanwhile, are non-factors.

“The same dichotomy playing out everywhere else between Romney and an anti-Romney is happening here, but in Maine, the non-Romney candidate is Ron Paul,” Quatrano said.

Who has the edge? Paul

Minnesota caucuses (February 7)

Delegates at stake: 40, non-binding

Santorum, Gingrich and Paul all view Minnesota as a prime opportunity to pick up some momentum in February.

Romney is making a campaign stop outside St. Paul on Wednesday to campaign with one of his leading supporters and familiar face in Minnesota – former Gov. Tim Pawlenty – before flying on to Nevada.

But Romney is hardly a sure bet in a state where it’s difficult to figure out just who will show up on caucus night, aside from the most devoted Republican activists.

Minnesota’s caucus electorate is likely to be small, but not as tiny as Maine’s. Roughly 62,000 people showed up for the 2008 caucuses. Local Republicans are expecting a similar turnout this month.

There is no registration by party in the state and anyone can participate in the contest, as long they will be 18 by Election Day in November.

Still, the Minnesota caucus electorate tends to be dominated by small government social conservatives who follow the presidential race closely, but know that their votes won’t actually yield any delegates for their favorite candidate.

That’s bad news for Romney.

“Electability doesn’t matter when your vote is only part of a preference ballot,” said one top Minnesota Republican operative who did not want to be quoted disparaging the caucuses. “I think that accrues to Paul’s and Gingrich’s benefit.”

“I would say both Paul and Gingrich are well-suited for Minnesota because caucus attendees here tend to be pretty anti-establishment,” the operative continued. “Four years ago Romney got the highest percentage in the preference ballot, but four years ago Romney was the conservative alternative to John McCain, and now that role has kind of switched.”

Who has the edge? Toss-up

Missouri primary (February 7)

Delegates at stake: None

No contest in February matters less than the Missouri primary.

In an effort to comply with Republican National Committee rules, the Missouri Republican Party tried last year to move their primary out of February and to a later date in 2012. But the state legislature could not figure out how or where to move the primary, so Missouri Republicans decided to make a March caucus their main event.

Those caucuses will award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, and all the campaigns are actively gearing up for it.

Curiously, though, the Missouri primary is still on the books and scheduled for February 7, even though it has been stripped of all value. Gingrich did not even qualify to get on the ballot.

So does anyone care about the Missouri primary?

Santorum’s campaign does. That’s because with Santorum, Romney and Paul as the only major candidates on the ballot, Santorum’s advisers see the vote as a chance to demonstrate viability against Romney.

“What we want to do is to show moderate Romney versus conservative Santorum,” said John Brabender, a senior adviser to the former Pennsylvania senator. “Newt Gingrich had his shot to take out Mitt Romney as the alternative, and he failed, because the problem is he doesn’t have the conservative credentials to do it.”

The Missouri Republican establishment is firmly aligned with Romney, but social conservatives are a dominant force in the state’s politics. Those are Santorum’s kind of voters, and he knows it: He bailed on Florida over the weekend and went to campaign in Missouri instead.

Who as the edge? Toss-up

Colorado caucuses (February 7)

Delegates at stake: 36, non-binding

Colorado is the largest caucus state to vote in February. Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call told CNN he expects that somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 Republicans will head to their local caucus sites next Tuesday.

“We are going to have high, record turnout,” he said.

Participation rules in Colorado are stricter than in other caucus states, a scenario that may work against Ron Paul, who tends to bring independents and younger voters into the process.

The caucuses are only open to registered Republican voters, and only to Republicans who registered in their local precinct prior to December 7.

The picture in Colorado looks similar to Nevada, with Romney relying on his professional campaign organization and residual goodwill from 2008, when he cruised to an easy win there over John McCain.

But Colorado is one of three states that the Santorum campaign is targeting in February. The reason: Evangelicals.

Focus On The Family founder James Dobson hails from Colorado Springs, an evangelical stronghold, and he is firmly in Santorum’s camp.

Who has the edge? Romney

Arizona primary (February 28)

Delegates at stake: 29, winner-take-all

Gingrich’s campaign considers Arizona its best bet in February.

The state that introduced Barry Goldwater to America continues to be a hotbed of grassroots conservatism, and Gingrich has aggressively positioned himself as the main anti-establishment figure in the Republican race.

Hammond, Gingrich’s spokesman, described Arizona as “a strong tea party state” and ranked it at the top of states on the campaign’s priority list this month.

But if Gingrich is to have a shot at Arizona’s 29 delegates, he will have to overcome Romney’s institutional advantages, including his endorsements from Arizona Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake. (Gingrich has the backing of Rep. Trent Franks.)

Though Romney lost to favorite son McCain in the 2008 primary, he did manage to win three Mormon-heavy counties along the state’s eastern border.

While they don’t comprise as large a share of the GOP vote as they do in Nevada, Mormon voters are “a very politically active constituency” in the state, said Arizona Republican Party spokesman Shane Wikfors.

Mormon voters made up about a tenth of the Republican vote in 2008. Nearly all of them cast ballots for Romney.

But a more problematic factor for Gingrich in Arizona may be the immigration issue. He has staked out a position to the left of Romney on illegal immigration, calling for a more humane deportation policy. He pressed that message throughout his Florida campaign in an effort to win over Hispanic voters.

But in Arizona, border security and “amnesty” are burning issues for conservatives, and Romney’s tough immigration talk is certain to score him points in a Republican primary there.

Who has the edge? Romney

Michigan primary (February 28)

Delegates at stake: 30, allocated proportionally statewide and winner-take-all by congressional district

Romney’s shadow looms large in Michigan.

During a campaign stop in Troy last November, he reflected on his lifelong affection for the Wolverine State.

“Everything seems right here,” he said. “You know, when I come back to Michigan, the trees are the right height. The grass is the right color for this time of year, sort of a brownish-greenish kind of thing. It just feels right.”

The state is central to Romney’s biography. He was born in Detroit, met his wife in Michigan, and his father George occupied the governor’s mansion for six years.

Romney scored a crucial 9-point win over McCain in Michigan in 2008, and Republicans expect that he will widen the margin this time.

“Clearly, Michigan is a stronghold for Romney,” said former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, a Romney supporter. “He can’t take it for granted, but I expect him to do extremely well.”

Santorum recognizes the long odds in Michigan and is choosing to focus his resources elsewhere. Paul is mostly focusing on caucus states this month, leaving Gingrich as the only Republican other than Romney keeping an eye on Michigan.

Gingrich recently hired veteran GOP operative John Yob to run his operations in the state, but the campaign is trying to diminish expectations before the primary.

“If we are looking at the six February states right now and we are going to rank them, we are not putting Michigan first,” said Hammond, the Gingrich spokesman.

There is potential reward for Gingrich if he decides to play in Michigan. Statewide delegates there are divided proportionately, and the rest of the delegates will be allocated by congressional district.

So if Gingrich manages to show well in certain places – the western swath of the state is heavy with conservative evangelicals, for instance – he could manage to nab a few delegates.

Who has the edge? Romney