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Alaska's delegates have surprisingly big role in 2012 GOP race

Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration

Florida's primary is now in the rearview mirror and Mitt Romney has likely claimed another 50 delegates. What if anything does it mean for Alaska's Republicans, shivering in the dark and patiently awaiting their chance to weigh in?

Depending on how things shake out over the coming months -- and if at least one of the other three candidates (Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum) keeps their word and continues to campaign up to the Republican National Convention in late August -- Alaska's 27 delegates might just might find themselves having an outsized importance in the nomination.

It's easy math despite convoluted party rules.

Alaska, a state of only 710,000, will be at least as important as Maine (population 1.3 million), more important than South Carolina (nearly 4.7 million), and more than twice as important as New Hampshire (nearly twice as populous as Alaska).

How's that? Start counting delegates. Maine has 24; South Carolina has 25, and New Hampshire, despite its outsized role in the contest, only offers 12.

In fact, if all four Republican contenders make it to Super Tuesday on March 6, when Alaska holds its presidential preference poll, Alaska's delegates could make a big difference. Other states voting that day include Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming, for a total of 426 delegates at stake.

Massachusetts and Georgia are Romney and Gingrich states, respectively, accounting for 117 of Super Tuesday delegates. Neither Gingrich nor Santorum gathered enough signatures to make it onto the Virginia ballot, which offers 49 delegates. And all of this gives Alaska added weight in the evolving race.

Larger states tend to have more delegates to offer than Alaska. But because of party rules and Republican Party registrants, that's not always the case. This election cycle is one of those exceptions. South Carolina and New Hampshire, for instance, were penalized for disobeying the Republican National Committee by moving up their primary elections. Consequently, each state lost delegates to send to the nominating convention. Nevada, which has a population of over 2.5 million, has 28 delegates. Vermont only offers 17 delegates.

With each of the first four states divvied up between three candidates, there's not yet a clear path to the nomination, which requires a plurality of delegates­.

Because Florida's state Republican leaders decided to buck the Republican National Committee and hold an early primary, the state lost half its delegates, from 100 to 50. And it's unclear whether Gingrich, Paul or Santorum will dispute Romney's winner-take-all success in the Sunshine State.

That means Alaska's status in the process gets an immediate boost. "We're half as important as Florida," says Evan Cutler, who's volunteering for Ron Paul's campaign in Alaska.

Gingrich has been attempting to prepare the nation for a long fight, noting that only 115 of 2,288 delegates -- about 5 percent -- have been awarded.

"The proportional nature of the upcoming contests essentially guarantees that no candidate will secure the nomination anytime soon, and the map gets better for us as we get deeper into the calendar," Gingrich senior adviser Kellyanne Conway is quoted in Politico as saying.

An Alaska horserace

Alaska's Republican presidential preference poll is open to only registered Republicans. Paperwork will be on-hand at each voting center to change registrations. After Super Tuesday's preference poll, Alaska delegates will be proportionately assigned to the Gingrich, Paul, Romney and Santorum campaigns, based on the number of votes each candidate receives (and if they all remain in the race through Super Tuesday).

If Romney, for instance, gets 20 percent of the vote in Alaska, he'll take 20 percent of the delegates. Alaska Republicans will sort all this out at their state convention in late April. Then, in August, the delegates will head to Tampa, Fla., to represent their respective candidates at the GOP National Convention.

So far, it's anyone's guess how Alaska will play out. Ads have yet to play here, and no candidate seems to have amassed an organized presence, though Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich expects to hear more from the candidates in coming weeks.

Sarah Palin seems to support Gingrich, paradoxically, as the anti-GOP establishment candidate. But that will likely mean little in her home state.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska political heavyweight, has endorsed Romney. U.S. Rep. Don Young, another 49th state rainmaker, has remained neutral, although he is good friends with Rep. Paul, Republican of Texas, and worked well in the 1990s with Gingrich in the House.

Gingrich has been here at least once, in 1998, when he took a tour of Alaska's oil patch and even joined in on an Eskimo blanket toss in Barrow. Santorum came to Alaska in 2004 to campaign for Murkowski, and there is "some expectation" he'll schedule a visit back here prior to the March vote, Ruedrich said.

Romney visited Alaska for a fishing trip and a fundraiser in 2006, and he handily won the 2008 primary in Alaska. Last fall, the Romney campaign sent Josh Romney, the candidate's son, back to Alaska as an emissary at the annual Republican Party picnic in Anchorage.  

It's still unsure whether all of the candidates will qualify for Alaska's race.

To do so requires 50 signatures from registered Republicans in five separate districts around Alaska. Each campaign must also submit a check for $1,000 to the Alaska Republican Party. The deadline for candidates to file everything in order to get on the ballot is Friday, Feb. 3.

As of Monday, only the Romney campaign had fulfilled these requirements. Both Paul and Gingrich have turned in the signatures and are awaiting certification, Ruedrich said. He's been told by the Santorum campaign to expect those signatures soon.

Cutler, the Paul campaign volunteer, said his candidate also expects to make the poll ballot. He has the signatures and is in the process of verifying their Republican registration. Paul has a grassroots organization in Alaska, and did fairly well in 2008, beating even Sen. John McCain and taking third place behind Romney and Mike Huckabee. Huckabee's wife came to campaign here for him; it appears candidates who make face time do well in Alaska.  

This time around, the Paul campaign has more organizing experience, and more general name recognition than he did in 2008, Cutler said. He thinks that Alaska will be good for him.

"Alaskans have more of an independent spirit than people in most states," said Cutler. "Ron Paul is all about the Constitution and liberty."

Contact Amanda at Amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com