By Tom Baxter

Under the rules which award states for recent Republican performance, Michigan, which holds its Republican presidential primary on Feb. 28, will seat 30 delegates when the GOP holds its national convention in Tampa this August, fewer than Alabama or Mississippi. Arizona, which votes the same day, will seat 29.

The following week, Georgia, with 76 delegates, is the biggest prize on the Super Tuesday, when 10 states with a combined 437 delegates make their choices.

Based solely on the numbers, one might think this would put Georgia in the national political spotlight. Instead, Georgia Republicans who’ve seen their kindred in other states whoop and holler through a score of debates, will have nothing more exciting to watch Monday night than Colbert’s return. The next televised debate will be Wednesday in Arizona, and Michigan appears to be getting the lion’s share of Super PAC ads.

By the catawampus logic of this campaign, all this makes sense. Mitt Romney can’t afford a black eye in one of his home states, while it doesn’t matter how well Newt Gingrich does in his home state, since his moon-like campaign is currently in a crescent phase. Also, Michigan and Arizona vote a week sooner so they matter more to the momentum of the campaign. Momentum’s what it’s all about. Florida didn’t mind forfeiting half its delegates to move ahead in line – who really counts them these days, anyway?

Barack Obama, for one. His 2008 campaign managed to overtake Hillary Clinton’s formidable machine by scrapping for delegates anywhere they could be found, including obscure caucuses in solidly Red States that went completely beneath his opponent’s radar.

With by far the deepest pockets, Mitt Romney may ultimately be able to use a similar strategy to cement the Republican nomination, although his performance so far in Maine, Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado leave that in doubt. But getting there the hard way is going to be even harder, because of the unsteady nature of the process this year.

At one time Republicans nominated their presidential candidates by a reasonably straightforward set of rules which gave them an advantage over the Democrats, who were fumbling with a variety of strategies to insure the inclusion of one group or another. But this year’s Republican nomination battle isn’t playing out nearly as tidily as the Democrats’ four years ago, and the process has a lot to do with it.

Obama was able to cement his position early enough to resolve matters with Clinton and swing full-on into the general election campaign. This year’s process isn’t likely to give the Republican nominee similar advantages. The relentless competition by states like Florida to move up in line has pushed the early contests too far away from the later states they’re supposed to be influencing, so momentum politics doesn’t work reliably. And the problems which have caused confusion over the winner in both Iowa and Maine have created doubts about the reliability of the process going forward.

Suppose this really were to come down to that Democratic and Newtonian fantasy, a brokered GOP convention in August. Everything would be in the hands of the delegates, and the integrity of the process that chose them would be crucial to the candidate getting his party’s enthusiastic support and his country’s trust. Then the caucus glitches which have already popped up might loom large, and Florida no doubt would press to have its penalty lifted. And what would they do about Virginia, where Gingrich and Rick Santorum won’t be on the ballot?

If the primaries and caucuses don’t produce a clear winner, there would also be a lot more focus on the way the GOP delegates are apportioned. Within the party, there are plausible reasons why the redder states get the larger share of the delegates, but this might not seem so clear to the casual voter, learning about it for the first time on cable TV.

A brokered convention is still unlikely, but for those who want to keep score in the weeks ahead, CNN has a useful delegate calculator.

Back for a moment to the lunar Newt. This month was supposed to be when Romney would consolidate his victory in Florida and Gingrich, with no air time, would slip from orbit. Gingrich did indeed go through a dark cycle, but Rick Santorum blocked Romney from putting things away. That means that with an impressive performance in Georgia and a leg up in Texas with Rick Perry’s endorsement, Gingrich might still have one more full-moon cycle left in him.

If the nomination comes down to a few delegates at the end of this long process, however, Romney still has the advantage. The last state to vote, on June 26, with 40 delegates, is Utah.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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