Just two weeks ago, Tuesday's Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary looked as if it might really count for the first time in more than a generation. That was before a broke Rick Santorum saw the $2.9 million that Mitt Romney planned to spend on television ads, and realized he might lose the state he had represented in the Senate.

So the turnout will be lower, the rhetoric cooler, and the national attention not nearly what it would have been for a Romney-Santorum showdown.

Even so, this primary has its share of oddities - starting with choosing delegates.

If you are a registered Republican and want to protest or affirm Romney's ascension, you can still do so - but be prepared to sort through a bunch of names you may not know. That's because the presidential popular vote is nonbinding, and delegates to the GOP nominating convention are listed elsewhere on the ballot, with no label saying which candidate they'd support.

"Our delegate-selection process has been described as byzantine, patchwork, arcane, crazy - and you'd have a hard time finding anyone to disagree," said Harrisburg-based GOP consultant Charlie Gerow, who has run former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaign in the state.

Then there's the rest of the ballot: The GOP primary for U.S. Senate features two leading candidates who accuse each other of being Democrats. The Democratic primary for attorney general has each candidate accusing the other of Republican tendencies. The ballot in far-flung Greene County features an unopposed Democrat, State Rep. Bill DeWeese, who is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday afternoon for stealing from the taxpayers.

If you're a Democrat, you can vote for President Obama, who is unopposed on his party's ballot. His organization is treating Tuesday as a rehearsal for November.

And regardless of your party, bring some photo ID to the polls - just to practice for the fall, when the state's new voter-ID law takes full effect.

In the presidential race, Republican voters will elect 59 delegates Tuesday - three from each of 18 congressional districts, plus one "bonus" delegate for each of five districts that have generated the most votes for GOP candidates over the last four years.

Then the Republican State Committee chooses 10 at-large delegates in June, and there are three superdelegates - two national committee members and the state chairman.

In all, 187 candidates around the state are running Tuesday for the right to go to Tampa, Fla., in August, when Republicans hold their convention.

Many are members of the GOP state committee, current and former members of Congress, state lawmakers, local elected officials, and activists with strong party ties.

Michael V. Puppio, for instance, is running in the Delaware County-based Seventh District. He's a familiar name to local Republican voters: a former county councilman and Springfield Township commissioner, and was a delegate to the 2008 convention that nominated John McCain.

To help him win a delegate slot, the county GOP will be distributing sample ballots and palm cards Tuesday, touting Puppio and the three other candidates it has endorsed. Yet he's still subject to the vagaries of a quirky process.

Puppio likens it to the starting gate in a horse race. "I don't have a great ballot position," he said. "Voters pick four delegates, and I'm in the 'eight' hole. Sometimes, you just have to run to the outside and go wire to wire."

Especially if you're with the tea party. In Bucks County, four tea party activists are challenging a slate of GOP regulars that includes the county chairwoman, a member of the state House, a county commissioner, and the mayor of Bensalem.

Recently, a letter touting that slate, signed by Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley (a former Bucks County commissioner) and a host of Republican officeholders in the county, landed in the mailboxes of 27,000 GOP voters with a history of turning out for primaries.

"I think the GOP is missing the boat by attacking people in their own party," said aspiring delegate Anastasia Przybylski, a tea party leader from Doylestown who is also a member of the county committee.

She and Ana Puig, another tea party leader, unsuccessfully sought the official GOP endorsement in seven district committee meetings.

"I wanted to show the committee we in the tea party were regular people who share their values," Przybylski said. "We're not scary, we're not the boogeyman."

Tea party activists, she said, have energized the GOP in Bucks County as they have elsewhere around the country.

"It's like the party leaders want the tea party to be useful idiots when they need a van driven or to show up at a protest," she said, "but when we want to have a real voice, we're the enemy."

Przybylski has first position among those vying for delegate in her district. But fear not, party elders: She vows to vote at the convention for the candidate who wins the district's popular vote Tuesday - and besides, she said, she is reconciled to backing the nominee-in-waiting, Romney.

Of course, Republican voters of a certain age remember when the Pennsylvania primary really did matter - in 1976.

That year, neither President Gerald Ford nor challenger Ronald Reagan had locked up the GOP nomination before the Kansas City convention. So Reagan, a conservative, vowed to make his running mate a Pennsylvania moderate - Sen. Richard Schweiker - hoping to win over the state's delegation.

Gerow called it a "genius move" aimed squarely at party leader Drew Lewis of Montgomery County, who controlled the state's delegation and was committed to Ford. Schweiker was a Lewis childhood friend, recalled Gerow, a young aide to Lewis in those days. "Drew Lewis had given his word to Ford, and he delivered the delegation without any real defections."

In 1979, as Reagan began a second run at the nomination, he locked up Lewis' support early. George H.W. Bush defeated Reagan in the popular vote in Pennsylvania's primary. But Lewis had recruited delegate candidates carefully, and made sure voters knew their names. "When all the shouting was done," Gerow said, "Ronald Reagan won the delegate count."

On Tuesday, Gerow, of Mechanicsburg, is running for delegate in a district that includes York. He said some Republicans might vote against him for backing Gingrich, who is still on the ballot, as is libertarian Ron Paul.

But chalk up Gerow's bigger problem to another oddity: "I live in the wrong part of the district," he explained. "It's a very York-centric district, and the voting patterns are tribal."

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

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on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "the Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.