A lone voter casts her ballot at the Woodland Elementary School polling… (David Maxwell / EPA )
Reporting from Washington — It’s the biggest day of the primary season so far: Four Republican presidential candidates. Ten states. 437 delegates (out of 2,286 overall). And a potential turning point in the 2012 election.
Here are five key questions that Super Tuesday's voters will be answering.
1. Does Rick Santorum win Ohio?
Ohio was the center of the campaign for the last week, and Romney once again outspent his main challenger. If Santorum overcomes that disadvantage, and scores a sorely needed upset, it would bolster his claim to be the anti-Romney choice that many conservatives have been looking for. At a minimum, Santorum needs wins in Oklahoma and Tennessee to remain a plausible threat. Elsewhere on Super Tuesday, a lack of campaign cash has hurt him badly. In Georgia, for example, he had little media presence (Santorum says he bought cable TV time, but Romney and Gingrich "super PAC" ads flooded the airwaves and he was invisible); as a result, the former senator could fail to qualify for Georgia’s 31 statewide delegates, which would increase the loser’s share that goes to Romney.
2. Can Mitt Romney carry Tennessee?
For Romney, the only better outcome than an Ohio victory would be wins in Ohio and Tennessee. His detractors say he’s weak in the South, the heart of the Republican base, and Romney got wiped out in South Carolina (he did win Florida, but that’s really not a Southern state). He’ll sweep Virginia on Tuesday, largely by default; Newt Gingrich and Santorum, who live in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, failed to make the ballot. Taking Tennessee would quiet criticism about the breadth of his appeal and could help make Romney the presumptive nominee.
3. Will Newt Gingrich win anything outside of Georgia?
The former House speaker won just one state (South Carolina) and again lags in national polls. Luckily for him, he once lived in and represented a charter Super Tuesday state. His election-night victory claim — that he performed better in his “home” state than Romney did in his native Michigan — is spurious, but that won’t stop him from making it. His rivals didn’t really contest Georgia, while Newt barnstormed it like he was running for state Agriculture commissioner. True, Georgia has today's fattest delegate pot, but they don’t all go to the winner. As Josh Putnam points out at FrontloadingHQ, delegate margins ultimately matter more, making Romney's Virginia win more important in the long run. A provincial victory will give Newt a pretext to move on, but if he’s going to rise from the ashes once more, he needs to win someplace else. Neighboring Tennessee may be his best bet today.
4. Will Ron Paul end his losing streak?
The Texas congressman is the only candidate without a victory in the first 12 delegate tests, but he may be about to get off the schneid. Three states are holding caucuses or conventions (four, if you count Wyoming, which picks delegates at county conventions today through Saturday), and Paul is competing in all of them. He was the only Republican contender to make the trek to Alaska. He waged a serious effort in North Dakota. And he targeted Idaho, too; though the state’s large Mormon population makes Romney the favorite there.
5. Does Super Tuesday end the Republican race?
In short, no. The Republican contest will go on, regardless of the primary and caucus results. Next Tuesday, for example, Gingrich and Santorum are expected to go head-to-head in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, where Romney’s a likely loser.
The real question is how much any of that will matter after tonight. If Romney does extremely well, the Republican campaign will shift into the consolidation phase: Romney will plod from state to state as the likely nominee, racking up delegates and trying to avoid unforced errors, while his rivals soldier on and the news media’s attention gradually turns to an Obama-Romney showdown in the fall.
But if there are negative surprises for Romney tonight -- an Ohio loss would be a serious embarrassment after all the time and money he put in -- the GOP race will rage on for weeks or months.