The libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul is equally set on gutting it out through the primary season in hopes of winning enough delegates to ensure that his contingent of fired-up budget hawks and limited-government advocates are represented at the convention. He is planning to compete in the organizationally intensive caucus states ahead.
And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — who hasn't won a state since his narrow, late-decided victory in Iowa — is reveling in a huge dose of national exposure that's certain to pay off when the contest ends. He has little reason to bow out as long as the money keeps flowing.
New Republican Party rules governing how delegates are awarded — proportionally in most early states rather than winner-take-all as in past years — mean that all four candidates can make the argument that they're winning, even if they come in second, third or fourth. There are a total of 2,286 delegates up for grabs, with 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination. Most states still have to weigh in.
Romney added to his lead in the delegate count with his Florida victory, bringing his total to 87. Some of the competition's biggest prizes such as Texas and New York are not until April. The biggest, California, is not until June. No candidate can clinch the nomination before late March, and with states awarding delegates proportionally, there probably won't be a presumptive nominee until at least April.
The explosion of super PACs is seemingly the largest factor fueling the possibility of a long primary season.
All of the candidates are benefiting from these outside groups that are closely aligned with them but operate independently of their campaigns.
The best example of candidate being kept afloat by these groups came as an all-but-broke Gingrich headed to South Carolina. That's when the super PAC called Winning Our Future, run by a former Gingrich aide, received a $5 million donation from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to air ads intended to help Gingrich. He ended up winning South Carolina.
The group got $5 million more from Adelson's wife as the race turned to Florida. The group has said it will continue to advertise in primary states as long as Gingrich is a candidate. Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who run the group, pledged to "be in Nevada and every other place we need to be as long as we can."
That said, a string of defeats in February will increase pressure on losing candidates to take stock as Republicans look to the fall — and Obama.
Kellman reported from Washington. Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington also contributed to this report.
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