WASHINGTON One Super Bowl down, one Super Tuesday to go. How can you figure out who's going to emerge victorious without having to stay up past your bedtime?
A few bellwether states where the polls close early Georgia and Massachusetts for the Republicans, Connecticut and New Jersey for the Democrats, and Missouri for both parties may hold the key. By studying those results, you should be able to determine if either Democrat has seized the national momentum. You'll also see if Republican front-runner John McCain is headed for an easy night or yet another reversal of political fortune.
Today's electoral showdown features 21 separate Republican state contests and 22 Democratic races (sorry, American Samoa). In all, 1,069 delegates to the Republican National Convention and 2,064 delegates to the Democratic National Convention are up for grabs. The biggest prizes are California, New York and Illinois.
But it could be very late before the Golden State's numbers start trickling in, although by looking at key early contests, you might learn how much microwave popcorn you're going to need.
On the Republican side, key early contests are in Georgia, Massachusetts and Missouri. If McCain sweeps in Georgia, Massachusetts and Missouri (highly unlikely, especially in Romney's home state of Massachusetts), it'll signal a national surge for the Arizona senator. Perhaps he knows something because Monday he stopped in Mitt Romney's hometown of Boston for a closing rally.
If he goes 0-for-3 in the bellwether states (also unlikely), however, McCain could find a potholed road to the nomination. A split decision means waiting for more states to report.
Among Democrats, the early-finishing primaries in Connecticut, New Jersey and Missouri could speak volumes.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has led the polls in New Jersey and Missouri, but Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is coming on strong. Connecticut has a history of backing Democratic underdogs. That's probably what Obama was thinking when he held a rally within sight of the New Jersey Meadowlands, home of the New York Giants, the upset winners of Sunday's Super Bowl.
"Sometimes," Obama told an enthusiastic crowd, "the underdog pulls it out."
If either Democrat sweeps these states, that candidate most likely will win the lion's share of delegates on Super Tuesday. But a split decision means you guessed it waiting longer for some caucus states to start reporting.
Obama has concentrated campaign cash and grass-roots muscle on a handful of caucus states, hoping that his enthusiastic, young supporters will turn out in large numbers. So look at the results from Kansas, his mother's native state and then the caucuses in Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Minnesota. If If Obama does well in these caucus states it still could be a super Tuesday for him.
If the early bellwether states prove inconclusive for the Republicans, the night's winner most likely will be crowned in a cluster of Southern contests, except for Arkansas, which is Mike Huckabee territory.
Outside Razorback territory, if Huckabee runs strong he'll take social conservative votes away from Romney, whereas a fading Huckabee could find Romney experiencing Southern Comfort and a possible upset victory to come in California. In which case, you better throw another bag of popcorn into the microwave.
Whatever happens tonight, the Democratic candidates already are making plans for the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4.
"Many of us will be making our reservations for Texas and Ohio," said Clinton strategist Howard Wolfson, "and perhaps Pennsylvania (in April) and beyond that."