Supporters of Rick Santorum leave after the former Pennsylvania senator… (Chris Carlson / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Get ready for plenty of sound and fury, signifying almost nothing, after Republican voters caucus in Minnesota and Colorado and cast ballots in a statewide primary in Missouri today.
With a three-week break ahead in the non-stop GOP voting action, Mitt Romney's remaining rivals for the party's presidential nomination will be seeking a spurt of badly needed publicity from the trio of tests. Polling in caucus states is often unreliable, but Minnesota -- where social conservatives are a strong force inside the party -- may provide the best chance for an upset.
Rick Santorum appears to be the main threat to Romney there, if efforts by the Romney campaign to assail him on Monday were any indication. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty hopped on a conference call with reporters to attack Santorum's aggressive support for earmarked spending when he was in Congress.
But regardless of the outcome, the action will be largely symbolic. The voting won't result in the selection of delegates required to support a particular presidential candidate at the party's national convention.
In Missouri, voters will participate in what's known as a "beauty contest" primary that has no connection to the delegate process. A light turnout is forecast.
The election was required under state law, and the Missouri Legislature failed to approve a measure to move the date into next month.
Voting before March 1 would violate Republican Party rules, if the primary results were binding --- resulting in a penalty that would cost Missouri half of its delegate slots at the convention in Tampa in late August. State Republicans will hold caucuses instead, starting at the precinct level on St. Patrick's Day.
Minnesota and Colorado Republicans will avoid similar penalties by waiting until March or April to select their delegates. The two states will report the results of a straw poll of caucus attendees tonight.
Those who follow the mind-numbing process closely may know that Iowa's caucuses have similar provisions (although, significantly, it is one of the few states that are exempt from the pre-March 1 penalties). Iowa's heavily publicized caucuses were similarly nonbinding, making Santorum's eventual victory -- by an eyelash -- over Romney also symbolic (though many news organizations have made delegate projections anyway, based on the results). In Iowa, the time and attention the candidates invest in the caucuses, and their historic significance in winnowing the presidential field, have given that early state outsized importance.
By contrast, the Republican contenders have campaigned very lightly in all three of today's states. The next meaningful round of primaries isn't until Feb. 28, when Michigan and Arizona vote.
As if to underscore the point that Tuesday's results shouldn't be given too much weight, Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer sent an advisory to reporters, reminding them that "no delegates will be awarded."
Here are the details, courtesy of the RNC:
Colorado is a nonbinding precinct caucus. Its 36 delegates will be chosen at district conventions held between March 31 and April 13, and at the state convention on April 14.
Minnesota is a nonbinding precinct caucus. Its 40 delegates will be chosen at district conventions held between April 14 and April 21, and at a state convention on May 5. Delegates are not bound unless the state convention passes a resolution to bind the delegates.
Missouri will hold a primary that is not recognized as being a part of any delegate allocation or selection process. A precinct caucus will be held on March 17 to begin the process of choosing its 52 delegates, who will be chosen at district conventions on April 21, and at a state convention on June 2. Candidates for delegate must state a presidential preference at the time of nomination and will be bound to support that candidate for one ballot at the national convention.