CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When it comes to presidential primaries, the outcomes are often decided -- or all-but-decided -- by the time West Virginia's relatively late primaries roll around on the second Tuesday in May.
But state Republican leaders believe this year might be different.
With "Super Tuesday," where 10 states hold their primary elections, just a couple of days away, the race for the Republican president nomination remains very competitive.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum lead the pack, and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul also remain in the race.
"On the national level, I don't know if it will be resolved when it gets to West Virginia. Every delegate will matter at the convention," said Michael Stuart, a Charleston lawyer and chairman of West Virginia's Republican Party.
Bill Phillips, who heads Romney's campaign in West Virginia, agrees.
"If one of the candidates has not achieved a majority of delegates, it will make the West Virginia primary very significant. It could happen," said Phillips, who owns Phillips Consulting in Elkins.
In fact, he's says, he's expecting that.
"I don't think it will be settled after Super Tuesday," Phillips said. "No state is too small or too late to matter. This contest could very well go as late as the California primary, on June 5."
West Virginia will send 31 delegates to the Republican National Convention, scheduled in Tampa at the end of August, Stuart said. As state party chairman, he is automatically a delegate, as are national committeewoman Donna Gosney of Boone County and national committeeman James Reed of Clay County.
The state Republican Party has 10 "at-large" delegates to the convention and nine "bonus" delegates. The bonus delegates were added because a majority of West Virginians voted for the Republican presidential candidate in 2008 and gave the Republicans a majority of the state's three congressional seats in 2010. The nine remaining delegates are divided equally between the state's three congressional districts.
According to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office, 193 candidates are on the ballot to become delegates to the Republican National Convention. Of those, 48 are committed to Romney, 42 to Gingrich (including Stuart's wife, Katrina), 28 to Paul and five to Santorum. The other 80 are not committed to any presidential candidate.
(West Virginia Democrats choose delegates to their national convention during county and state party meetings, rather than on the ballot, said state Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio.)
"There are strong bases of support for all candidates left in the race. Who wins is anybody's guess," Stuart said. "Any Republican in West Virginia would probably vote for any of the four, over the status quo, in November's election."
He said state Republican leaders will be "focused on West Virginia issues. We leave the presidential campaign to the presidential campaigns.
"Hopefully, we will see some of the presidential candidates in West Virginia, addressing issues that matter to West Virginia, before May 8," he said. "Any candidate who takes the time to get to know West Virginia will probably be awarded with a victory in West Virginia."
Phillips, the Romney leader who also directed the West Virginia campaign for George W. Bush in 2000, said, "I think Mitt Romney is the most electable. He has proven himself as a leader. He looks at issues rationally. He is obviously the person to replace Barack Obama.
"Romney listens to all sides. He digs in and looks at the facts. He would be best for the country."
Sen. Donna J. Boley, R-Pleasants, also is running to become a Romney delegate.