DENVER Colorado Republicans will gather Tuesday night in neighborhood meetings to choose a presidential candidate, and for once, it matters.
A look at the national voting calendar shows why.
Minnesota holds caucuses and Missouri has a primary the same day as Colorado. The next contests in Arizona and Michigan are three weeks later. So Colorado stands as the last chance for Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul to prove their mettle with voters until the end of the month.
Santorum is concentrating especially hard on Colorado, with nine in-state events scheduled as of Friday morning.
A lot of folks said these caucuses are not that important, and everything is focused on Super Tuesday (March 6, when 11 states vote). You show them different here in Colorado, Santorum said at a Wednesday rally.
It was a different story in 2008. Those caucuses also were the first week in February, but by the time Colorado Republicans had voted, the race was all but over.
Romney handily won the 2008 Colorado caucuses, but he dropped out of the race two days later because Arizona Sen. John McCain had won too many other states.
Officially, Tuesdays contest is a nonbinding straw poll. But it offers an important clue as to which candidate will get Colorados 36 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August.
Colorado will not finalize its delegates until the weekend of April 13-14, when Republicans gather in Denver for their state and congressional district assemblies.
How it works
For 66 Colorado Republicans, Tuesdays caucuses will be the first step toward attendance at the Republican National Convention.
Its a long road.
First, they have to convince their neighbors Tuesday night to choose them as delegates to the county assembly.
They have to win another election at the county assembly to go on to the next level either the congressional district assembly or state assembly, which are scheduled for April 13 and 14.
Those delegates are bound by honor to vote for the presidential candidates they supported at the precinct caucus, said state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call. If a candidate drops out before the assembly, his delegates are released to vote for someone else.
In all, Colorado will send 33 delegates and 33 alternates to Tampa, in addition to its three members of the Republican National Committee.
For all offices except the president from U.S. congressman to county surveyor Colorados system is more confusing because there is a second election in June.
Candidates who lose at the precinct caucuses and assemblies or who skip them altogether can round up petition signatures to get their names on the ballot for the primary election at the end of June. Its the primary results that decide who will be the Republican and Democratic candidates in November for every office except president.
But the caucuses and assemblies matter because the winner gets the top spot on the June primary ballot, and a winning candidate often can end a competitors campaign even before the primary.
In Archuleta County, delegates to the March 3 county assembly will vote on county commissioner candidates.
In Montezuma County, Republicans will select delegates to later assemblies that will decide on candidates for county commissioner and district attorney.
Dems arent waiting
Democrats do not caucus until March 6, and their nominee President Barack Obama is a forgone conclusion.
But they are quick to point out that Obama has the most organized campaign of all the candidates in Colorado.
Since last April, Obamas campaign has held 2,700 events in Colorado, including more than 1,000 phone banks designed to make personal connections with voters.
Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio noted that Democrats had 120,000 participants in their 2008 caucuses, when Obama was battling Hillary Clinton.
If the Republicans are motivated, they should be able to at least match that number in their caucuses, Palacio said.