Candidates Lock Their Sights On GOP Convention

In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, a number of contests are awarding delegates on a proportional basis. That fact, combined with a back-loaded calendar, may stretch out the nominating process until the party's convention in August.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne, with Steve Inskeep.

Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum say don't count them out. They're in the race for the long haul, all the way to the Republican National Convention. This year, new rule changes in the GOP nominating process give the trailing candidates time to catch up. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, it's a lengthy and challenging road to travel.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Newt Gingrich is adamant.

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NEWT GINGRICH: We are going to contest every place, and we are going to win, and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August.

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KAHN: Rick Santorum insists he's not dropping out, and Ron Paul likes to mock his non-front runner status.

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RON PAUL: We're in third place when it comes to delegates, and that's what really counts.

KAHN: Paul, who really is in fourth place in the delegate count, was speaking in Nevada, where he's spending a lot of time and effort. The rule changes made by the Republican National Committee this year were designed to keep the race suspenseful for at least a few months. The early contests were supposed to award delegates proportionally. Without a big winner-take-all race, one candidate can't get an insurmountable lead - at least not yet.

Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College, says the RNC has gotten a bit of what they hoped for. To date, only 6 percent of the delegates have been awarded. But he says something else is keeping the contest alive: the astonishing amount of money given to superPACs.

JACK PITNEY: Four years ago, there were no superPACs. A candidate who suffered a defeat would see his or her money dry up.

KAHN: A pro-Santorum group has given about $2 million to keep the former Pennsylvania senator afloat. And Gingrich's superPAC has kicked in at least $12 million. Ron Paul also has superPAC support, but more important to his long haul strategy is a well-established national organization led by very committed followers who he likes to call his irate, tireless minority.

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KAHN: At a Las Vegas Paul rally this week, Arin Hopkins, who makes wedding veils for a living, says she's not interested in supporting anyone else. She's been backing Paul since 2007 and has already made more than 200 phone calls for him this time around.

ARIN HOPKINS: Well, once you're a true Ron Paul supporter, there is no leaving Ron Paul. There's no leaving the message of liberty.

KAHN: February is full of caucuses in small states where turnout is usually low, and such a cadre of dedicated supporters can make a difference. Davidson College political scientist Josh Putnam says Paul's organizational advantage will keep him in the race until the convention. Still, he doesn't see him being able to pick up the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination. Putnam says it's money that will decide whether Gingrich and Santorum are going to stay in the race much longer.

JOSH PUTNAM: The next best point of evaluation is going to be when we get that next wave of Southern contests. And that'll hit on March 6th, Super Tuesday.

KAHN: Putnam says if either candidate doesn't win big in the 10 Super Tuesday contests, it will be hard to convince donors to keep giving. Ron Paul doesn't have that problem, says supporter Arin Hopkins.

HOPKINS: He will make it all the way to the convention. We all know that he will make it to the convention. I don't care if he has 1 percent of the vote. I don't care if he has 20 percent of the vote.

KAHN: She says she and other supporters will be with him all the way until the end.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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