TAMPA, Fla. -- Mitt Romney's campaign has the best lawyers and delegate counters in the business, and it's a good thing: He's going to need every one of them.
Once he had hoped for an early-state clean sweep, after "winning" on caucus night in Iowa. Now Romney and his campaign are hunkering down for a months-long battle to accumulate the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination.
The GOP calendar this year is more spread out than it was four years ago, which means that the contest was going to last until at least late April even if Romney had buried Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul long ago. But now that South Carolina has given a boost to Gingrich -- and a small but important cache of delegates -- it's clear how long the campaign will last.
"It would have been nice to run the table, but we never really expected that," said Romney campaign legal counsel Benjamin Ginsberg. "We're ready for the long haul."
That is true not only because there seems to be a genuine three-way race in the offing (or at least two-and-a-half-way) involving Gingrich, Romney and Paul, but because of the GOP's primary calendar and state-by-state rules for choosing delegates.
Four years ago, nearly 60 percent of all delegates had been chosen by the end of February. Republican officials wanted to correct for that this time around, but they may have overdone it. This year a mere 15 percent of all delegates will have been chosen by the end of February -- and even if there were a prohibitive frontrunner (which there is not), no one could mathematically wrap up the nomination before April 24.
In reaching the party's final selection, the details of the various states' delegate rules also matter For example, Iowa selects delegates by a complex convention system; the final split could take months to determine. New Hampshire is a proportional representation state (with a 10 percent minimum threshold), which reduced the impact of Romney's victory there.
South Carolina, by contrast, is winner-take-all, statewide and by congressional district, which means that Gingrich's victory in the Palmetto State will probably give him the delegate lead.
And now a fight is brewing over Florida. Like South Carolina, Florida was penalized with a drastic loss of delegates for moving its primary up to January. There has been talk that Florida might be punished further by forcing the state to distribute its delegates by proportional representation.
If that happens, there could be a floor fight at the Republication National Convention. And it's only January, folks.
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