FRANKFORT — Though Mitt Romney is zeroing in on the Republican presidential nomination, Kentucky still could have a competitive primary next month, observers say.
The question is whether that will matter.
"It's a long shot but Kentucky may still be a factor in determining who will be the Republican nominee for president even though Romney is leading the pack at this time and the closest challenger — Rick Santorum — is on life support," said Dewey Clayton, a University of Louisville political science professor.
But Kentucky could still favor Santorum, as did its southern neighbors — Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
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"Kentucky is one of five to six states in May that could be considered Santorum-friendly, or maybe Romney-unfriendly," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "There's the real possibility that Kentucky will be contested this year."
Even if Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, captured all of the available delegate votes up to Kentucky's May 22 presidential primary, he still would be 69 votes short of locking up the party nomination.
Romney has accumulated 658 delegates of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has 281; former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia has 135, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has five.
"It looks like Romney's to lose since it is still almost mathematically impossible for Santorum to get enough delegate votes to overtake Romney, but Kentucky could give him a little bit of a boost and allow him to continue in the race," said Clayton.
Kentucky's importance in the race depends on whether Santorum is still an active candidate on May 22, Sabato said.
"If Santorum wins his home state of Pennsylvania, he'll be quite competitive in Kentucky," said Sabato, who correctly predicted in July 2008 that Barack Obama would win the presidency.
"If he loses Pennsylvania, which is quite possible, he won't be — or I don't see, how he could continue."
Western Kentucky University political science professor Scott Lasley agrees that a Romney victory in Pennsylvania could spell the end of the Republican contest. Pennsylvania voters soundly rejected Santorum's bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2006, and recent polls show him trailing Romney there.
"The best way for the Kentucky primary to be important is for Santorum to win Pennsylvania," Lasley said. "It might be mathematically possible that Romney won't clinch until Kentucky, but it's shaping up to be like the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in Kentucky."
In 2008, Kentucky voters ignored mounting evidence that Obama would be the Democratic presidential nominee and overwhelmingly supported then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton defeated Obama by 250,000 votes in Kentucky, carrying every county except Fayette and Jefferson.
Don Dugi, a political science professor at Transylvania University, does not think the Kentucky primary will be meaningful.
"The Republican race may not be decided by then but there are some big primaries remaining that should go Romney's way," he said, mentioning the California primary on June 5 with its 172 delegates.
So far, Romney has won in northern and western states and Florida while losing to Santorum or Gingrich in southern states.
U of L's Clayton predicts that Santorum will win the Kentucky primary "because primarily he's a social conservative and so are core Kentucky Republicans."
He also said Santorum would have an advantage in Kentucky because of religion.
"It appears many of the evangelical voters in Kentucky like what they hear from Santorum. Many think Santorum is genuine and, the other thing is, Romney is a Mormon.
"It's sad to say this, but some of the evangelical voters are not happy with that."
Kentucky delegates to the Republican convention Aug. 27-30 in Tampa, Fla., will be awarded to a candidate on a proportional basis of votes received in the primary. A candidate must get a minimum of 15 percent of the vote to get any Kentucky delegates.
Both major political parties in Kentucky are working on their delegate selection process through a series of conventions and caucuses.
The state Republican Party has to select 45 delegates to the national convention. The state Democratic Party will have 73 delegates at its national convention Sept. 3-6 in Charlotte, N.C. Both parties also will have alternate delegates.
The state Republican Party will hold its first of six congressional district conventions this weekend in Corbin, culminating in a state convention June 9 in Somerset. The Democrats will hold county and legislative district conventions and county caucuses April 14, with a state convention June 2 in Louisville.
"The process is off to a good start," said state Democratic Party spokesman Matt Erwin.
So far, no presidential candidate of either party has announced a visit to Kentucky before the primary election.
State Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson noted that his party will hold its annual statewide Lincoln Day dinner May 19 in Lexington, the weekend before the election.
"If this Republican nomination is still in question, I assume there will be some interest by candidates to attend this," Robertson said. "We have told them we would make room for them."
Whoever is the Republican nominee should win Kentucky in the fall, Clayton said.
Though Romney clearly isn't the choice of the South, he is "guaranteed to win all of them in November, save for Virginia, Florida and maybe North Carolina — the three carried by Obama in 2008," said Sabato.
Romney will inherit the vast majority of southern electoral votes simply because he will be the Republican nominee, he said.