Rick Santorum speaks at the First National Bank Exhibition Hall in Loveland,… (Chris Schneider / Associated…)
Imagine if the Super Bowl was played three weeks after the Pro Bowl. That is essentially the situation in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, which is about to see an unusual break between contests before the most significant cache of delegates will be up for grabs.
As preliminary vote totals come in from Nevada caucus sites, the candidates have already turned their attention to elections in a trio of states -- Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. Maine is also holding municipal caucuses throughout the week that will conclude one week from Saturday.
The next elections won't be until Feb. 28 -- primaries in Arizona and Michigan, with a combined 59 delegates at stake -- followed in a week by Super Tuesday, when 10 states vote in primaries and caucuses.
Why the gap? Republicans adopted rules at the 2008 national convention meant to avoid "frontloading" the nominating contest -- having too many delegates at stake in the early weeks.
Those rules said no state could hold its primary or caucuses before March 6, with four exceptions: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Those early states were scheduled to vote in February.
Many states were already in compliance or changed their dates accordingly. But one of the largest, Florida, chose to jump ahead to Jan. 31, which forced Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire to move earlier. Nevada, which initially jumped to Jan. 14, moved back to Saturday after pressure to accommodate New Hampshire's move to Jan. 10.
That left February still largely bereft of contests, something that will test the trailing campaign's ability to articulate a case for staying in the race. The good news for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum is that there is one planned televised debate on CNN on Feb. 22.
Here's what's coming this week after the Nevada caucuses:
Colorado is holding its precinct caucuses on Feb. 7, which will begin the process of awarding 33 of the state's 36 delegates to the national convention. Officially, delegates will be elected at congressional district conventions in early April and at the state Republican convention on April 14. Like the Iowa caucuses, those delegates will be not be bound before the convention, meaning they can ultimately vote for any candidate.
Each of the candidates has campaigned in Colorado this week, Mitt Romney doing so on Saturday. The former Massachusetts governor won the 2008 caucuses, held on that year's Super Tuesday of Feb. 5. Turnout then was about 70,000.
Forty delegates are at stake in Minnesota, including three unpledged Republican National Committee delegates. But like Colorado, the state's caucuses this Tuesday only begin the delegate-selection process. Congressional district conventions will be in mid-April, and the state convention on May 5. The state convention will decide whether the state's delegates are bound to the chosen candidate or not.
Minnesota, too, was a Super Tuesday state in 2008, one that Romney carried by nearly 20 points over John McCain and Mike Huckabee. Turnout was over 62,000.
The state Legislature failed to move the date of Missouri's state-funded presidential primary election, set for Feb. 7. Rather than see the state's 52-member delegation cut in half, Missouri Republicans opted to hold caucuses on March 17. It's a decision not sitting well with some like Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who bemoaned the $7 million cost of Tuesday's vote.
Still, the contest has drawn the attention of Santorum. One possible reason? Gingrich failed to make the ballot, and so Santorum could post a strong result that gives him at least a morale boost at a time when he may face increased pressure to drop out.
The 2008 primary was one of the tightest three-way races on Super Tuesday, with McCain finishing narrowly ahead of Huckabee, and 4 points ahead of Romney.
Maine's municipal caucuses are now underway and will continue through next Saturday. Only a few thousand turned out for the 2008 caucuses, which Romney won. Ron Paul, who has a strategy built around strong totals in the caucus states, campaigned there last week.
Twenty-four delegates are at stake in Maine. They won't formally be allocated until district and state conventions in May.