Long, tough delegate battle lies ahead for GOP candidates

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(CBS News) Mitt Romney emerged the delegate winner of the Super Tuesday contests and has widened his lead in total delegates to date according to CBS News estimates, but it may be a while before anyone can rack up the 1,144 delegates needed to capture the nomination.

Complete CBS News state-by-state GOP delegate estimates

Romney now has 396 delegates -- 748 away from the number needed to clinch. Rick Santorum is his closest challenger in the race for delegates with an estimated 146, with Newt Gingrich at 97 and Ron Paul at 38. In order to reach the required 1,144, Romney needs to win about half of the remaining delegates, while Santorum would need to win two-thirds of them.

Because the primary calendar is so spread out from here, it could take Mitt Romney a while to get to 1,144, even if he keeps winning delegates at a good pace. Due to most states allocating their delegates proportionally, this makes a quick wrap-up especially hard as well. Romney would have to do the near impossible and win every single pledged delegate from here on to get to 1,144 by mid-May. Since Rick Santorum is all but sure to get delegates too -- especially in the many states that look friendly to him -- this could be an even longer fight.

Starting with caucuses this Saturday in Kansas and U.S. territories, and going through April 3, there are 16 nominating contests. However, they offer only about half of the 748 delegates Romney would need to reach the magic number.

Also, only four of the remaining 35 contests allocate their delegates winner-take-all (all pledged delegates to the statewide winner) - which also makes it difficult for someone to deliver a knock-out blow. And these primaries are months apart. Two are held in April (Delaware and Washington, D.C.), and the other two (New Jersey and Utah) are in June. There are 123 delegates at stake in these states combined.

Next week, Mississippi and Alabama hold primaries which may be friendly territory for Santorum. White evangelicals made up seven in 10 Alabama Republican primary voters in 2008 - similar to the percentages in Tennessee and Oklahoma last Tuesday where Santorum was victorious. Eighty-four delegates are at stake in these two contests (Mississippi 37; Alabama 47), and while the statewide winner will get a greater share of the delegates, second and third-place finishers could also win some. Tennessee and Oklahoma had similar delegate allocation plans and Santorum came out ahead in delegates in these two states, but both Romney and Gingrich were also awarded delegates.

At left, CBS News political director John Dickerson discusses the delegate battle and the GOP campaign with the Huffington Post's Jon Ward, USA Today's Susan Page and the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny on Friday's episode of Hotsheet Live.

Later this month, the nomination battle heads to another midwestern state, Illinois, with 54 delegates at stake. Santorum is facing similar ballot issues there that he did in Ohio. His delegates are not on the ballot for congressional district (CD) delegate allocation in four districts, which makes him ineligible for 10 delegates.

On April 24, five states are holding primaries -- including the northeastern states of Connecticut, and New York. These states have more moderate Republican electorates and few evangelicals, perhaps giving Romney an advantage. There are about 200 delegates up for grabs on this date, with 92 from New York alone. Rick Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania also has a primary on April 24.

The month of May brings a mix of southern, western and midwestern states -- including North Carolina, Oregon, Indiana and Texas. With 155 delegates at stake, Texas' primary was originally scheduled to be on March 6th (Super Tuesday), but redistricting disputes pushed the primary back to April 3 and then again to its current date on May 29. Currently, Texas' delegate plan calls for all its delegates to be allocated proportionally statewide, not by congressional district. If all four candidates are still in the race at this point, each could receive a share of the state's delegates depending on the outcome.

On June 5, it's California, with 169 delegates up for grabs (the most of any state), along with four other states that include winner-take-all New Jersey with 50 delegates available. California plans to allocate its at-large delegates winner-take-all to the statewide winner, and then allocate its congressional delegates separately with a similar method. While not a truly winner take all state, a candidate with a decisive win here can come away the lion's share of the states delegates.

The final state of the primary season is Utah on June 26. Will it all come down to the Beehive State? With its significant Mormon population, Romney won the 2008 primary here with almost 90 percent of the vote.

Aside from all the pledged delegates remaining in the primaries and caucuses, there are about 120 Republican National Committee members who attend the national convention unpledged. CBS News has been interviewing these delegates to gauge their candidate support. So far, 15 back Romney, four support Santorum, and one is for Gingrich. Most have not committed to a candidate yet.

These unpledged delegates make up just 5 percent of the total 2286 (about 10 percent of the number needed to win), but they could play a pivotal role in a neck and neck battle for 1,144 the delegates.

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