Unpledged Delegates Muddle the Stakes in Pa.

Unpledged Delegates Muddle the Stakes in Pa.

By Erin McPike - April 10, 2012

When Mitt Romney's campaign started airing negative ads in Rick Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania on Monday, even Republican elders in Washington were surprised.

Within the last week, a large swath of the media and the GOP establishment declared the Republican primary effectively over. In light of that, some insiders grumbled that Romney needs to halt the intra-party negativity so he can pivot toward the general election.

Nonetheless, with the primary race closing in on a five-state battle two weeks from today, the Romney campaign hopes for convincing wins in all of them to better send the front-runner triumphantly into the coming showdown with President Obama.

Publicly, Romney has taken a more gracious tone regarding Pennsylvania, saying that he believes candidates should be expected to win their home states. He, for instance, won Michigan in late February and Massachusetts a week later on Super Tuesday. And Newt Gingrich won his home state of Georgia the very same day. Given that Santorum has beaten the odds to get this far, why shouldn’t he have that honor, too?

Pennsylvania Republicans operate a closed primary contest, so Democrats and independents will not be able to participate on April 24 and add to Santorum’s totals, as they had done in Wisconsin. Romney has overcome a big deficit in recent weeks and is starting to close in on Santorum. In light of that changing dynamic, a veteran state GOP operative sees a gloomy road ahead for the native son: “I think it’s a tough hill for the senator to climb. I don’t think he can win Pennsylvania.”

The Romney campaign has committed $2.9 million to advertising in the state, but much of it hasn’t been put to use just yet. Although a negative ad was on the air Monday morning, the Romney campaign later pulled it in deference to Santorum, who suspended his campaign while his youngest daughter, Bella, is in the hospital.

According to Romney spokesman Ryan Williams, the ad is down not just for one day but until further notice -- due entirely to Santorum’s family matter.

But according to the Pennsylvania Republican operative, “Once they go up . . . I think Rick’s going to be in trouble with that.”

The operative added that winning the state is “a fairly easy roadmap for the Romney campaign” because “they just have to [turn] out southeastern Pennsylvania voters.”

But the winner of the popular vote is to some extent immaterial, because all of Pennsylvania’s delegates are unpledged, meaning they can make up their own minds on the floor of the Republican National Convention in August.

At that gathering this summer in Tampa, Pennsylvania will award 72 delegates, making it the fifth-biggest prize in the GOP race. Only California (172), Texas (155), New York (95) and Georgia (76) have more. Gingrich won Georgia, and the other large contests lie ahead. (In addition to Pennsylvania and New York’s 167 delegates, another 64 will be awarded April 24 in Connecticut [28], Rhode Island [19] and Delaware [17].)

Indeed, Williams said the Romney team expects that even if they don’t win the popular vote in Pennsylvania, they should still win the delegate count.

Fifty-nine of the Keystone State’s 72 delegates are elected; three from each of 13 congressional districts, plus four from each of five of the most reliably Republican districts. (The Romney campaign has been busy getting activists loyal to them to enter those elections.) Ten more are at-large, to be chosen by the state party committee this summer. And another three include the state chairman and a Republican committeeman and committeewoman.

According to Santorum campaign manager Mike Biundo, however, “We feel pretty darn confident in the folks we’ve been calling for the delegate slate.” He added, “We’ve heard this bravado from the Romney campaign before.”

Biundo pointed out that Santorum has an established base of relationships on his home turf, and knows where his loyalists are.

And so for Romney, he said, “if it’s going to be an easy road, somebody should tell [his] campaign. There’s nothing that the Romney folks can throw at us that has not been thrown at us in Pennsylvania. There’s going to be no new ground tread by Mitt Romney’s ads.”

Those ads, whenever they begin airing again, may or may not have an impact on the state’s voters, but even so, that only relates to the popular vote.

The only ballots that truly matter are those of the 72 delegates, most of whom face their own elections. And, again, each and every one of them can change their minds on the convention floor. 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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