For months, the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania seemed as though it would be too late to matter.

Then, briefly, it loomed as the decisive test.

Now, with Pennsylvania next on the calendar, a new perspective is taking hold: The primary will be important, but not all-important.

It will not turn out to be just another contest. But it's not looking anything like a final confrontation either, not unless Barack Obama can stage a come-from-behind victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Between now and the primary on April 22, Pennsylvania could even lose its prime distinction - that of being the most populous state yet to weigh in - should there be reruns in Florida (which is bigger) and Michigan, which were penalized for holding primaries earlier than party rules allowed.

Indeed, in the last week, the campaign conversation was dominated not by the candidates' prospects in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, but by Florida/Michigan issues - and by the race-based comments of Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro and Obama's former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Analysts also have noticed that there will be more delegates at stake on May 6 when North Carolina and Indiana vote, 187, than the 158 available in Pennsylvania. Florida and Michigan account for 313.

Like so many other aspects of the grueling race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the state's precise role is subject to political interpretation and spin.

The Clinton campaign, which leads by double digits in state polls, has tried to talk up the state's role, while Obama's campaign manager has called it "only one of 10 remaining contests."

To a striking degree, Pennsylvania seems to have been categorized in advance as Clinton territory because of her success in demographically similar states such as Ohio, her husband's lingering statewide popularity, and support she has been receiving from the local political establishment, led by Gov. Rendell and Mayor Nutter.

The candidates themselves have contributed to such sentiment in word and deed.

In the last week, Clinton has spent parts of four days in the state, traveling to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton. Her husband was all over Western Pennsylvania for two days. Her daughter visited numerous college campuses.

"I can tell you that I think Pennsylvania is key not only to this nominating process but to our eventual victory in the fall," Hillary Clinton told reporters in Pittsburgh on Friday. "I don't see how a Democrat wins the election without winning Pennsylvania."

By contrast, Obama made just one stop, in Bucks County; because of Senate business he had to cancel a second trip, to southwestern Pennsylvania. He is scheduled to be in suburban Pittsburgh and Scranton today and in Philadelphia tomorrow.

His wife, Michelle, made three appearances in Delaware and Montgomery Counties last week.

"We've had a pretty simple philosophy in this campaign," Obama said. "We go to every state. We campaign in every state. . . . We will come out of here with delegates. We'll come out of here with votes."

On Saturday, when Clinton marched in St. Patrick's Day parades in Pittsburgh and Scranton, Obama was in Indiana, one of the May 6 primary states.

Speaking in Canonsburg in Washington County last week, Bill Clinton was confident enough to declare: "I think just as I felt she had to win in Texas and Ohio - and she did, and won handily - I think she's got to win a big victory in Pennsylvania."

Perhaps the only way that Pennsylvania could prove decisive would be if Obama were to win the primary, which seems unlikely right now.

Such an outcome would undercut Clinton's oft-made argument that she is the preferred choice of the big states that dominate the Electoral College. For that reason, an Obama win would have a huge impact on the undeclared superdelegates, who hold the nomination in their hands.

But the Obama campaign has been sending out signals suggesting that it has not yet figured out whether to go all-out in the state. Which in turn has caused Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, to accuse Obama and his aides of "turning their back on Pennsylvania."

That has the feel of overstatement. At this early stage, Obama might well be ahead of Clinton in terms of bringing in professional staff, opening campaign offices, and organizing thousands of volunteers.

Obama and company are working hard to register voters before the March 24 deadline. This is a closed primary - another factor that could work to Clinton's benefit - meaning that independents and Republicans may vote in the Democratic primary only if they change their registration in advance.

At the same time, Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, who has run mayoral campaigns in Philadelphia, told reporters yesterday: "Pennsylvania is an important state; it's not the only state. The Clinton campaign likes to designate the states they win as the important ones. Sometimes, they see seven stars in the American flag. We see 50."

Obama's overall lead in delegates, which is as big now as it was before his defeats on March 4, allows him to afford a respectable loss in Pennsylvania.

But he abandons the state at his peril. The Democrats' proportional system of allocating delegates - the same system responsible for making this race so close - forces him to make a serious effort.

That's because a blowout loss would give Clinton a substantial haul of delegates, make a big impression on the superdelegates, and perhaps create the idea among voters down the road that the campaign has taken a turn.

"In the end, Pennsylvania isn't going to be downplayed," said Neil Oxman, a Philadelphia-based political consultant not working for either candidate. "This is not Wyoming or Mississippi."

Thirty-six days remain for the state to take its rightful position in the Clinton-Obama saga, whatever that position turns out to be.

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.