WASHINGTON - Don't look to crown any presidential nominees on Super Tuesday. The race for delegates is so close in both parties that it is mathematically impossible for any candidate to lock up the nomination on Feb. 5, according to an Associated Press analysis of the states in play that day.
"A lot of people were predicting that this presidential election on both sides was going to be this massive sprint that ended on Feb. 5," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant who is not affiliated with any candidate. Now it's looking as if the primaries after Super Tuesday — including such big, delegate-rich states as Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania — could grow in importance.
"Maybe some states were better off waiting," said Backus.
That doesn't mean Super Tuesday won't be super after all. Voters in more than 20 states will go to the polls on the biggest day of the primary campaign, and thousands of delegates will be at stake.
But it's possible Feb. 5 might not even produce clear front-runners.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton leads the race for delegates to the Democratic National Convention this summer. She has 236, including separately chosen party and elected officials known as superdelegates, giving her a 100-delegate lead over Sen. Barack Obama.
There will be nearly 1,700 Democratic delegates at stake on Feb. 5, enough to put a candidate well on his or her way to the 2,025 needed to secure the nomination. But even if somehow either Clinton or Obama won every single one of those delegates, it wouldn't be enough. And with two strong candidates, the delegates could be divided fairly evenly because the Democrats award their delegates proportionally — not winner-take- all.
The biggest prizes among the Democratic states are California (370 delegates), New York (232) and Illinois (153). All three states award Democratic delegates proportionally, with most delegates awarded according to the popular vote in individual congressional districts, and the rest based on the statewide vote.
The wild card for the Democrats involves the superdelegates, nearly 800 elected officials and members of the Democratic National Committee. They are free to support any candidate they choose at the national convention, regardless of the outcome of the primaries.
The AP has interviewed more than 90 percent of the superdelegates who have been identified by the party, and most have yet to endorse a candidate. Many say they will not make endorsements until after their states vote.
The Republicans have a better chance to produce a clear front-runner because several states, including New York, New Jersey, Missouri and Arizona, award all their GOP delegates to the candidate who wins the popular statewide vote. But a Republican candidate would have to attract support across the country to build a formidable lead.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads the race for delegates to the Republican National Convention with 59. He is followed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee with 40 and Arizona Sen. John McCain with 36.
There will be more than 1,000 Republican delegates at stake on Feb. 5, enough to give a candidate a substantial boost toward the 1,191 needed to win the nomination — but only if one man emerges victorious in numerous states.
"I think you could have two or three viable (GOP) candidates" following Super Tuesday, said Ohio Republican Chairman Robert Bennett.
Ohio is waiting in the wings with its 85 Republican delegates a month later, on March 4, a date it shares with Texas, which will award 137 GOP delegates.
Other big states with later contests include Maryland and Virginia on Feb. 12, Wisconsin on Feb. 19 and Pennsylvania on April 22.
Four years ago, Sen. John Kerry clinched the Democratic nomination on March 2 — the earliest date in modern times — with a string of Super Tuesday primary victories. In 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore both clinched their parties' nominations on March 14, each sweeping a string of Southern primaries that day.
This year, Super Tuesday has grown to include more than 20 states, and it was moved up to Feb. 5 as states leapfrogged each other in an attempt to increase their influence in picking the nominees.
With so many states voting so early, the stage was set for a lengthy general election campaign after nominees were settled early in the year.
Some think that is still a good bet, especially if candidates who don't fare well on Feb. 5 decide to drop out.
"It may take a while for Obama or Clinton to get 50 percent plus one of the delegates. But if it does narrow to a two-person race, then the Democratic nomination will be determined relatively soon," said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University.
Rohde said the nomination contests may drag all the way to the conventions this summer. But he added, "It is also possible for aliens from Mars to land tomorrow and interfere with the election."