With three recent wins by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum this week making the GOP presidential primary more competitive, has Super Tuesday and Virginia's role taken on more significance? And with only two contenders on the ballot, where does that leave those who wanted to vote for Santorum or former Speaker Newt Gingrich?
"Probably the best that Romney's conservative opponents can hope for is to somewhat embarrass him by giving some substantial support to Paul," said Mark J. Rozell, professor of Public Policy at George Mason University.
"Virginia is unusual this year in that only two candidates qualified to be on the ballot—Mitt Romney and Ron Paul," he noted.
In less than a month, Virginians will vote in the GOP presidential primary on Tuesday, March 6, although absentee voting has already started in the state. So far in Fairfax County, 236 ballots have come in and 56 people have voted "in person absentee" as of Wednesday, said Cameron Quinn, the county's chief elections officer.
How much support do the two who are on the ballot have? At least financially, they both come out on top. Here's the breakdown on the donations that Virginians have made, as of Feb. 2, to each GOP presidential candidate remaining in the primary, according to the Center for Responsive Politics:
- Mitt Romney: $1,982,427
- Ron Paul: $303,688
- Newt Gingrich: $254,870
- Rick Santorum: $87,837
Virginia, which holds an open primary—meaning any qualified voter can vote—has 49 delegates up for grabs, handed out proportionally depending on the votes each candidate receives.
"The GOP race remains unsettled, although all will acknowledge that Romney still retains most of the advantages," Rozell said. "Chances are very strong that two or three of the remaining challengers to Romney will still be in the race by Super Tuesday."
The fact that there are only two candidates on the ballot in the state could mean Virginia will see very little campaigning by the candidates here, Rozell predicted.
"I see very little outreach by any of the candidates in Virginia given the fact that two of the four remaining candidates are not even on the ballot and then there is little doubt at this time as to the likely outcome," he said.
With Gingrich and Santorum off the ballot in Virginia, the Romney and Paul camps possibly won't feel a need to buy much advertising in Virginia to fend off the competition. The situation could mean lost ad dollars for Virginia media. Although they're not spending as much as in previous years, the GOP presidential campaigns, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, as well as outside groups, have spent $28.9 million so far.
Before it's all over, the presidential campaign season is expected to see upwards of $3.2 billion in ad spending according to Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group.