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Possible Scenarios for Super Tuesday

By Reid Wilson

With more than half of the pledged delegates needed for the nomination to be awarded after the final results come in tonight -- or tomorrow -- both parties' races could be entering their final acts, and the verdict delivered today may determine who is standing when the curtain closes. Primary voters and caucus-goers in two dozen states head to the polls today, and the five major remaining candidates will hunker down in their home states to analyze the results and figure out just how the race may have changed.

On all sides, strategists have contingency plans they will need to put into action at a moment's notice. Each has a scenario they hope for, and a scenario they dread. Here are some of the results we could see by the end of the night, beginning with the GOP:

John McCain wins big. McCain is in a strong position in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware - four states that award all their delegates, save a few at large representatives, to the statewide winner. Add in the 53 winner take all delegates at stake in his home state of Arizona and McCain looks poised for a big night. Given McCain's lead in the national polls, he looks almost certain to come out of Tuesday with more delegates than any other candidate. If he wins an overwhelming number of states, he's likely to be declared the unstoppable front-runner.

Mitt Romney has already begun talking about his campaign in what seems like a resigned fashion. After a delay in throwing more money at February 5 states to build a big lead in television advertising, Romney wrote a check, but given the size of his buys it seems the commitment was much smaller than previous ones. A big McCain win, including victories in California, Colorado and Georgia, would likely chase Romney from the race.

Mitt Romney makes a stand. California is up for grabs, and the momentum looks to be with Romney. Polls also showed him leading by a wide margin in Massachusetts, Colorado (which holds caucuses), and in Utah. He has paid attention in some form or another to West Virginia and Alaska, and he could benefit from McCain's rocky relationship with conservatives in other states.

Romney's biggest obstacle looks like Mike Huckabee, who is doing well in Southern states like Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama and his home state of Arkansas. If Romney's superior organization and bigger advertising budget can overcome Huckabee's underground coalition of support, Romney could add several more states to his column.

Huckabee is a factor. Aside from the five southern states in which he is polling well -- all of which are awarded bonus delegates because of their strong GOP performance -- Huckabee has a chance to do well in states Romney and McCain have largely skipped, including North Dakota (neighboring South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds is a Huckabee backer), West Virginia and Oklahoma.

Still, Huckabee has not attacked McCain during the race. In fact, in debates and in interviews, he has virtually genuflected to the Arizonan, whom he refers to as an American hero. Advisers to both men say they geniunely like and respect each other, and one can imagine Huckabee, the only candidate who can be said to be unable to compete with McCain financially, spending the next few weeks in the limelight auditioning for Vice President. If Huckabee is a factor this evening, it will be to McCain's advantage and Romney's disadvantage.

Regardless of today's outcome, McCain is likely to have more delegates going forward than either Huckabee or Romney. Whether McCain actually wins more states, and whether that lead is convincing enough to knock the other two from the race, will be the true measure of his success tonight. Both Romney and Huckabee need good nights, and both could find their campaigns finished by the time the votes are counted.

On the Democratic side, the race is no less volatile. A one-time massive front-runner, Hillary Clinton has seen her lead collapse and she has begun to play something of a prevent defense. It may be, though, that Barack Obama is already too far down the field for such tactics to work. The scenarios we might see tonight between the two:

Obama wins big. Recent polls have shown a tightening Democratic race, and some surveys show Obama actually leading among national Democrats. Those polls, and the momentum that comes with them, could be a sign of serious trouble for Clinton. Obama, meanwhile, has been building support from the ground up, spending time and resources organizing in caucus states including Idaho, Minnesota, Alaska and others. African-American voters play a large role in Georgia and Alabama, giving him a leg up in those states, too. If Obama wins California by a wide margin, he has the chance to dominate.

If Obama scores a heavy victory, he will likely do so on the backs of key surrogates. Obama has won backing in recent weeks from Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad and a majority of the Connecticut Congressional delegation, not to mention both Massachusetts Senators and Governor Deval Patrick. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who announced her backing a few weeks ago, has been virtually attached to Obama's hip in recent campaign stops. If those surrogates deliver, Obama could win more states than Clinton does, and could take a commanding delegate lead.

Clinton wins big. Hillary Clinton is still the national front-runner, the Democrat best-known by most primary voters, and heads into today's voting with a good starting hand. She maintains leads in most polls in California and will likely perform well in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Mexico and other big states. And despite Obama's support from key surrogates, Clinton still has leads in the latest RCP Averages in Massachusetts, Missouri, Arizona and Connecticut. She's even relatively close in late polls out of Alabama and Georgia.

A big Clinton win would give her campaign a much needed boost. Excitement is building around the possibility of an Obama nomination, and for Clinton to win a big victory would put a firm lid on that sense of momentum, reestablishing her as the Democratic heavyweight. Obama will still be around -- raising $32 million in a single month tends to give a candidate some staying power -- but some might begin to question whether he can get the job done. Others will begin to reconsider their discarded notion that Clinton hasn't already gotten the job done.

They play to a draw. As results trickle slowly in and analysis of delegate allocation begins to reach consensus, Tuesday night could show nothing more than a hugely expensive 22-state stalemate. Both candidates will claim victory, saying that each held off a challenge from the other, though in truth neither will have won.

It is fair to surmise, however, that a tie ballgame will be seen as a Clinton loss. The storyline will be that the one-time heavy favorite failed to cover the spread, and in post-February 5 overtime each team gets a chance to compete on a smaller state-by-state field. Discounting Florida - where Obama didn't play -- the first four early states have given both candidates two wins. But those wins were not equal: Clinton barely won New Hampshire and scored a not-overwhelming victory in Nevada. Obama took a big win in Iowa and doubled Clinton up in South Carolina. Clinton has yet to score a knockout, and an even split on Super Tuesday would have more people wondering if she can score one at all.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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