Looking east on Super Tuesday, California's presidential primary election found hope.
Not much, perhaps — the Republican nominating contest may still be over by the time California votes in June — but enough that Republicans are giving the possibility some thought.
"(Mitt) Romney won the delegate count, and he won more states, but the story is, as it has been, that Romney can't knock out the competition," said Republican strategist Aaron McLear.
Like most Republicans, McLear still thinks the contest won't last. But "California," he said, "is much more of a possibility today than it was yesterday."
This time four years ago, the Republican presidential primary was decided, and it wasn't that long ago, before Rick Santorum surged, that Romney's nomination seemed inevitable, too.
With the California primary still three months away, Romney has more than twice as many delegates as Santorum, his nearest rival, according to one estimate. But he is less than 40 percent of the way to the 1,144 delegates required to win the nomination.
On Tuesday, three candidates each won states, and Romney only squeaked by Santorum in Ohio.
"The closer we get to California, with candidates still picking up states and delegates, it means that we might actually have a voice, which a lot of people didn't think that we would have," Ron Nehring, the former chairman of the California Republican Party, said on San Francisco's KCBS radio moments before Santorum was declared the winner over Romney in Tennessee.
Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who won Georgia, have said they will stay in the race, and the large number of delegates offered by Texas, in late May, and California, on June 5, may entice them.
If not actively campaigning, the candidates' organizers in California are considering how to compete in a primary in the nation's most populous state. California's delegate-allocation system awards almost all of the state's 172 delegates by congressional district, three delegates each to the winner in each one.
If California is contested, said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state Republican Party executive director who doesn't think it will be, an underfunded candidate like Santorum or Gingrich could compete for delegates in Democratic areas where fewer Republicans vote.
In a state that traditionally relies on TV advertising, he said, "Now you have a campaign that could say, 'Hey, I'm going to go into San Francisco where it's a lot cheaper to communicate with your high-propensity Republicans.' "
Steve Frank, a senior California adviser to Gingrich, said his candidate might adopt such a strategy, and he suggested he would not be alone.
"Santorum and Gingrich and (Ron) Paul and Romney are going to find out where Chico is," he said. "They are going to find out that there is a Clovis, and not in New Mexico, and they will see El Centro."
Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, a Santorum surrogate in California, said Wednesday that the Santorum campaign is putting county chairs in place and "will be ready to go."
At a minimum, Nehring said, the possibility of a competitive primary in California will force candidates this month and next to assemble slates of hundreds of delegates here.
Though Romney remains favored among likely Republican voters in California, Santorum has pulled within striking distance, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released Wednesday. Twenty-two percent of likely voters remain undecided, according to the poll.
Bret de St. Jeor, a Modesto businessman and volunteer for Romney, said he is "100 percent confident" that Republicans eventually "will fall behind him (Romney) and support him 100 percent."
Romney is scheduled to return to donor-rich California this month to raise money, attending a fundraiser on March 27 at the home of Stockton billionaire Alex Spanos.
California Republicans have lamented the likely meaninglessness of their primary ever since Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed legislation moving the election back to June, consolidating it with the statewide primary election to save money.
The state is so heavily Democratic that no Republican is expected to campaign seriously against President Barack Obama here in November, and many Republicans view the primary election as their only chance to air California-specific concerns.
There are other reasons, of course, to root for a contest.
Allison Olson, who organized an online club of Republican women and was watching returns on TV with about 10 other people in Sacramento on Tuesday, said the group stayed up to see the result from Ohio, believing a close margin could improve California's chances of being in play.
"As a political junkie," she said, "it makes it more exciting."
To read more, visit www.sacbee.com.