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Smerconish: Pennsylvania primary 'is a beauty contest'

By Michael SmerconishLet me finish tonight with this. Now that the Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

By Michael Smerconish

Let me finish tonight with this. Now that the Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. primaries are behind us, all eyes are shifting to my home state, Chris' home state, and Rick Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania.

Today's New York Times headline: "Pennsylvania Lets Romney Go Straight for Jugular."

At Politico, it was: "Santorum puts his money on Pennsylvania."

Well, permit me a quick primer on Pennsylvania. There are two things you need to know...  

First: on the surface, the primary election dynamics would seem to benefit Rick Santorum. 

Yes, the last time Santorum was on a Pennsylvania ballot, in 2006, he lost by 18 points to Bob Casey, Jr. But today, poll after poll shows Santorum leading Mitt Romney, albeit by a dwindling margin. Santorum's chances have been aided by electoral changes that favor his primary prospects but won't bode well for him, or the GOP, come November.

Consider: over the last four years, the state GOP has lost almost 140,000 voters. Meanwhile, the ranks of the unaffiliated--Pennsylvania's "independents"--have swelled by almost 161,000, or 43 percent.

In other words, six years after he decisively lost Pennsylvania--including a total blowout in the traditionally moderate Philadelphia suburbs--Santorum will compete for votes in a primary that now better suits his strengths: a smaller, more conservative one. The exodus of moderates from the GOP helps Santorum in the short term, but it bears no relation to his general election prospects if he somehow becomes the nominee.  

The second thing you need to know about Pennsylvania is that this primary is a beauty contest. If Chris were here, he'd explain this with a history lesson: 

In 1976, Ronald Reagan was competing for the nomination with President Ford. As the campaign headed toward the convention in Kansas City, Reagan said his running mate would be Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker, a move designed to win over the Pennsylvania delegation. Why? Because Reagan knew that Pennsylvania doesn't tie its delegates to the victor of its primary.

That strategy did not work in 1976. But Reagan benefited from the beauty contest four years later, when George H.W. Bush won the Pennsylvania primary, but a majority of the state's delegates went with the Gipper anyway. 

How can this happen?

Because those running for delegate to the convention are listed on the ballot in their home congressional district without any stated commitment nor tie to a particular candidate. I know because in 1984, I was an alternate delegate elected to the GOP convention in Dallas.  

What usually happens is that the GOP faithful are the ones who run for the slots. They include party loyalists who are involved in their local committee. And they tend to be influenced by the establishment, which has been reluctant to support their former colleague, Santorum.  

Nevertheless, Santorum has said he has every intention of winning the Keystone State. And because the party has narrowed in its composition, he could certainly do so.  

But he and his campaign must know that winning Pennsylvania's popular vote won't put him closer to the delegate count needed to actually win the nomination.

Which means, this is really all about erasing that 18-point loss in 2006.

Beauty contest, indeed.