LONDON, Ky. — Voters in Kentucky have watched from the sidelines as Republican presidential primaries unfolded in other states. When they finally get their say a little more than a month from now, it may not matter.
"These presidential primaries for us are almost like the weather," said tea party strategist Phil Moffett. "You see it coming. You can prepare for it. But you can't change it."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appears on course to collect the 1,144 delegates he needs to wrap up the Republican nomination, despite the best efforts of top challenger Rick Santorum who is facing growing pressure to drop out of the race.
The candidates still have primaries in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Nebraska and Oregon before Kentucky voters go to the polls on May 22.
Kentucky GOP Chairman Steve Robertson said the outcome of those primaries will determine whether the voices of his state's 1.1 million Republicans will matter.
"It's still a question mark," Robertson said. "It's kind of a wait and see."
Kentucky has 45 delegates in play. But because presidential primary races are typically decided long before Kentucky voters go to the polls in the state's late primary, candidates rarely campaign in the state.
The exception was in 2008, when then Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigned in Kentucky both in person and with television spots. In the 2000 Republican primary, former President George W. Bush routed a bus tour through the western end of the state in his initial campaign.
Some expect Santorum may make a run at Kentucky if he wins Pennsylvania, his home state. Santorum's conservative stands on social issues play well among Kentucky Republicans, but most observers believe Romney will take Kentucky easily.
"Do I believe that Kentucky could still be meaningful to some of these candidates? Yeah," Robertson said. "But there are still some states between now and then, and it's just hard to say how things will continue to unfold."
University of Kentucky political scientist Steve Voss said earlier uncertainty about the GOP nomination has faded as the Romney campaign gained strength.
"It looks like the snowball in favor of Mitt Romey is growing pretty quickly," Voss said. "So it looks like we will not have the impact we thought we might."
Kentucky is bereft of public opinion polls regarding the presidential primary. But Republicans in the GOP stronghold of southeastern Kentucky believe the Romney campaign has the most energy in a state where voters overwhelmingly elected the son of Republican hopeful Ron Paul to the U.S. Senate just more than a year ago.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said his father's chances of doing well in Kentucky grow dimmer because of Romney's success in other states.
"There's sort of an inevitability," Rand Paul said. "It was that way with McCain last time. He didn't have the exact number before Kentucky, but it was sort of on the way to becoming inevitable. And I think Romney is getting closer to that. Most of the statistics show that if Santorum was to challenge him he'd have to win like 80 percent of the remaining delegates. And that's just not going to happen."
Even polar opposites like Democratic strategist Danny Briscoe and Republican strategist David Adams believe Romney has Kentucky wrapped up.
Adams predicted Romney will win the Kentucky primary "in a cake walk."
Briscoe said Kentucky, even with its predominately Southern Baptist population, would put any misgivings about Romney's Mormonism aside and support him in both the primary and in the general because Obama remains so unpopular in the state.
Obama overwhelmingly lost the state to Republican nominee John McCain in 2008, and polls haven't shown any improvement in his negatives here.
"Romney is clearly going to carry the state in the fall because his name isn't Obama," Briscoe said.
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