Cover Story: NC In Play?

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It's still anyone's game.  Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum can all claim wins in early primaries and caucuses.

The latest victories happening Tuesday night in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri where Santorum won big.

And a new public policy poll shows the race is still a toss up here in North Carolina.

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are tied for the lead with 30%.

Rick Santorum is ten points behind at 20% and Ron Paul in 4th at 11%.

So what does this mean for your vote in the May primary?

Traditionally by the time our primary arrives the drama is over.  But if there's one thing this year has shown us, 2012 isn't a normal year.

In an election year like we're having now you expect to see candidates and commercials.

Candidates in our lives.  Commercials filling our TV screens.

But consider what we've seen so far.

A governor bowing out.  A congresswoman doing the same.  And two more from Congress saying they've had enough.

"Good to hear we've got some conservatives."

Now in the presidential race the Republicans apparently can't settle on a nominee.

Leading up to Iowa many faces at one time or another took their turn in the spotlight.

And now with the winner of Iowa, Rick Santorum, breaking out the broom and having a clean sweep of three races in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota it sets the presumed nominee Mitt Romney back on his heels.

"Each time that he loses to somebody else then the story raises the question about is he really inevitable?

UNC Charlotte political scientist Dr. Eric Heberlig says Romney is still by far the likely nominee.

But each time he loses to somebody else it leaves reporters to search for the factions of the GOP who are dissenting from Romney's coronation.

And the longer it takes for Republicans to find a nominee the more likely it is that North Carolinians will be able to weigh in.

Traditionally by the time North Carolina's Primary arrives (which is May 8th this year) the presidential contest is decided.

"By Santorum winning it makes it more likely that this will drag out.. but we're so late that I think it's still unlikely they'll be two candidates who are really truly competitive at that point."

2008 was competitive.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still duking it out when the presidential primary came to North Carolina four years ago.  Voters in 38 states and the District of Columbia had voted and it was still up in the air.

Could lightening strike twice for North Carolina?

Or could it wind up backfiring on the GOP?

"I think it's too early to judge whether the Republicans are going to be hurt by the current attacks on each other. At this phase in 2008 Democrats were fearing exactly the same thing. And it ended up now everybody judges it to be a big success."

Barack Obama kept his organization in North Carolina and managed to capture the state in the General Election becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to claim North Carolina's 15 electoral votes since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

We're probably not in for a long drawn out race this year.  Under GOP rules after April 1st the primaries are winner take all - the race could open up in about a month and a half.

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