WASHINGTON - Never before has one set date factored so heavily into the presidential nominating process, as voters go to their polling stations or caucus sites in 24 states and one territory Feb. 5.
Democrats will vie for 2,064 delegates, Republicans for 1,048. Democrats will commit more than 50 percent of their convention delegates to different presidential candidates on that day, known as ''Super Tuesday''; Republicans, more than 40 percent.
Michigan and Florida will be sending fewer delegates to the nominating conventions than in the past as a penalty meted out by the parties for having moved their respective primaries forward on the calendar in defiance of party rules.
Not so long ago, the prevailing wisdom was that such a ''front-loaded'' nomination process, with so many delegates at stake so early, would overly favor deep-pocketed frontrunners. But that analysis presumed there would be one or two of them around come Feb. 5. As it happens, no front-runner has emerged for either party, and no candidate has enough cash in hand to maintain on-the-ground operations and purchase media visibility in all of the Super Tuesday states. Even the one who might - billionaire businessman Mitt Romney - has found there isn't time enough anyway to campaign everywhere at once. The influence of densely populated states like New York and California, though remaining considerable, has been diluted this year by the demands of drawing delegates from across the board on Feb. 5, according to the consensus analysis.
So the reality of Super Tuesday has played out thus - given the proportional-to-vote distribution of delegates both parties favor (the Democrats favor it exclusively, while the GOP permits variations by state), candidates are campaigning for a handful of delegates from some states, a few big wins in more delegate-rich states, and a kind of favored-son harvest from those states where they enjoy an advantage going in for one reason or another.
To all appearances, Hillary Clinton has the most to gain from that strategy. As a sitting Democratic senator from New York, she has an advantage there and in neighboring New Jersey. Likewise in Arkansas, where she was first lady to her husband, the governor and eventual president, Bill Clinton. And in California, the most delegate-rich state of them all with 441 to divide among Democrats, the Bill Clinton presidency is rich in memory and may serve her well. Meanwhile, the women's vote is expected to help her delegate count, even in states where she isn't campaigning as if to win.
Similarly, Barack Obama, the Illinois senator who has emerged with Clinton as a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination, expects to win most of his state's 185 delegates; contend for late-deciding, young and reformist voters from coast to coast; and cash in black ballots in key states.
In the GOP, Arizona Sen. John McCain can be confident of most of his state's 53 delegates, and Romney of most of 121 from Massachusetts (he is its former governor). Beyond that, their strategies are as many-stranded as a Republican electorate that sent up three separate winners in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan.
The Native-populous states in play Feb. 5 are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah. The prize of all prizes Feb. 5 is the undecided voter; the state of states, California. With that in mind, someone like Alec Garfield becomes a barometer of national politics. A director of water resources for the Tule River Tribal Council in Porterville, Calif., Garfield intends to vote Democrat. ''Right now, for me anyway, it's a toss-up between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. ... My wife and I are still talking about this.''
They are impressed that Clinton addressed Natives and their issues by video at a National Congress of American Indians meeting in Denver recently. Advantage Clinton? ''Just a bit.''
But Garfield considers her too much of a Washington insider, and he's certain it's time for a changing of the guard. Advantage Obama? Too early to know for sure.
Neither candidate has said anything to impress him on the subjects of water resources or the environment, he said.